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June 2024 Recap: Tenerife, Canary Islands

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Hello! I hope you’re enjoying your summer. After three months in England, Steve and I were ready for some serious sunshine. We found it on the Island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands.

We spent five weeks there, two in Puerto de la Cruz and three in Los Cristianos. We enjoyed both stays and will be spending all of July and most of August on other islands in the Canaries.

Read on to learn more about our time on this enchanting island.

Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife

We arrived in the Canary Islands on May 28th. Our first stop was Puerto de la Cruz on the northern coast of the Island of Tenerife.

We stayed at the Hotel Rui Garoe for two weeks. The hotel and grounds were well maintained, the staff was top notch, and there was entertainment every night. We opted for half board, and the food was very good. Some days, there was a chocolate fountain at the breakfast buffet, and on Sunday, there was cava for breakfast.

The lobby smelled amazing. I was told it is a proprietary scent called Lady of the Night. I couldn’t help thinking of what that means in the U.S.

Steve and I highly recommend Hotel Rui Garoe. We booked it through Expedia.com and you can too.

Collage of nine photos from the Hotel Rui Garoe
Scenes from the Rui Garoe

On June 2nd, Steve and I celebrated our 45th anniversary. We spent most of it lying by the pool at the hotel. It was perfect.

A swimming pool surrounded by loungers and umbrellas
Total tranquillity at the Hotel Rui Garoe

We hiked to the defunct Puerto de la Cruz aqueduct. The ocean was never far from view.

An aqueduct and a field of banana plants
The defunct Puerto de la Cruz aqueduct and a banana plantation

At the end of our hike, we ran across some street art.

Four photos of street art
Street art in Puerto de la Cruz

Agatha Christie stayed in Puerto de la Cruz in 1927. A stairway in town has the titles of 47 of her novels on the steps, and there is a street named after her.

Stairs with Agatha Christie book titles on them
The Agatha Christie stairs in Puerto de la Cruz

Barrio La Ranilla is the old fishermen’s district. Now it is adorned with some street art.

Photos of an old house and two murals
A house and two murals in Barrio La Ranilla

The Orchid Garden in Sitio Litre was beautiful. However, there weren’t a lot of orchids. Even so, if you like exploring gardens, this is worth your while.

A fountain in a garden
A fountain in the Orchid Garden at Sitio Litre
A stuffed hedgehog on a bench and lying surrounded by miniature liquor bottles
Mojo was well behaved during our visit to the Orchid Garden but he got into the minibar when Steve and I went to dinner

The Nearby Town of La Orotava

The town of La Orotava is only twenty minutes by bus from Puerto de la Cruz. We enjoyed our first visit so much that we went back another day.

We were there during the town’s Corpus Christi celebration, so we got to see the mind-blowing sand art in honor of the holiday.

Sand paintings on the ground
Sand paintings in La Orotava in celebration of Corpus Christi

The House of the Balconies was built in 1632 and was the home of several prominent families. Now it is a museum. There are carved wooden balconies on the exterior and overlooking the courtyard.

This museum is not a must-see, but if you have an hour or so, it makes for some cool photos.

Four photos of areas of the House of the Balconies
Clockwise from upper left: the kitchen, the parlor, wine storage, and the courtyard

The old town of La Orotava is one of the prettiest we’ve seen. As we strolled through it, we were continually delighted. This is part of a terrace garden:

Formal gardens and a large building
The terraced Marquesado de la Quinta Roja Garden with the Liceo de Taoro Cultural Society in the background

Los Cristianos, Tenerife

Our second stay in Tenerife was in Los Cristianos on the southwestern part of the island. We stayed at the Hollywood Mirage, which was very different from Hotel Rui Garoe.

While the Garoe has a refined atmosphere, the Mirage has a party atmosphere. There are a lot of games, pool activities, and nightly parties. Be warned, the music is loud. We fell asleep to it every night.

Steve and I enjoyed our stay at the Hollywood Mirage, but it’s not for everyone. You can book it on Expedia.com or Booking.com.

Four photos of a hotel and people dancing
Clockwise from upper left: the main pool, the bar and cafe, dancing time, and showtime

The Mirage was inland but thanks to the hills we had a great view of the ocean. It was a short bus ride to the coast with its beautiful beaches and resorts.

People on a beach
Playa de las Vistas on the southwest coast of Tenerife

Since we started traveling full-time, Steve has been looking for an opportunity to do some deep-sea fishing. He finally found it in Los Cristianos. He spent nine hours on the boat, caught a lot of fish, and came home with enough tuna for many meals. He caught too much for us to use, so he shared it with the captain and the other fishermen.

Steve went with Crested Wave and was very happy with them. All this only cost $156.

a man holding a large fish
Steve, with his first catch of the day, a 35-pound wahoo

While Steve was fishing, I was relaxing at the Hollywood Mirage resort. On Saturday afternoons, they have a foam party in the main pool.

a group of people in a pool
Good, clean fun – a foam party in the pool

We could see a large hill called Montana Chayofita from our apartment.

This little volcano or cinder cone is between the busy towns of Los Cristianos and Las Americas. It is only 374 feet or 114 meters high and a short, easy hike of about an hour. Even Mojo made it to the top!

a collage of a man, woman, and toy hedgehog in a desert
Steve at the base of Montana Chayofita, and Linda and Mojo at the top

The following day, we took a half-day tour to Mount Teide and Las Canadas in the Teide National Park. This active volcano stands at 12,200 feet or 3,700 meters above sea level, making it the highest peak in Spain.

You can book the same tour we took with GetYourGuide.

a road leading to a mountain
Rock formations and Mount Teide in Teide National Park

I have tried paella several times and could take it or leave it. One day, we were walking past the Don Quijote restaurant and saw their ad for paella for two with a pitcher of sangria or a bottle of wine for around $30.

Being the thoughtful wife I am, I suggested we go there because Steve likes paella. We were both blown away. I don’t know what was different about this one, but it was so good we had it three more times during our three-week stay.

Don Quijote also has a traditional happy hour (two for one drinks). Their margaritas were marvelous. It’s nice to know happy hours still exist somewhere. We have seldom seen them on our travels, and when we do, they are usually for discounted drinks, not two for one.

a pan of seafood paella
The best paella ever

Our Take on Tenerife

We fell in love with the climate, the laid-back life, the ease of transportation, and the affordability. We can see ourselves living here in the future.

Until Next Time

We’re off to La Palma, another island in the Canary Islands. This time, we’re staying at a secluded spa resort called La Palma Jardin.

Have you been to the Canary Islands? Did you fall in love with them too? Drop a comment in the section below and tell us about your island adventures.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Travel Resources

Here are handy links to services and products Steve and I like and use. If you book or purchase anything through them, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

Book your hotel here with Booking or Expedia.
Save on roaming fees with the Airalo eSIM.
Schedule memorable tours with GetYourGuide and Viator.

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March 2024: Cambridge, Bury St. Edmunds, and London, U.K.

Cambridge

Our three-day trip to Cambridge got off to a rainy start.

a rainy day seen through a window
The train station, as seen through a window in our hotel

But we still enjoyed the art at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

a sculpture of a woman’s head covered in a veil
“The Bride” at the Fitzwilliam Museum (from the Copeland Factory after Raffaelle Monti)

The rain cleared long enough to walk the cemetery grounds of Little St. Mary’s Church.

a stone building with trees and a cemetery
Little St. Mary’s Church and Cemetery

We checked out the inside too.

A Station of the Cross
A unique Station of the Cross in Little St. Mary’s Church

A stroll through town led us to a few cool shops.

a storefront with a window
The House of Wizard – need I say more?
plates and cups in a store window
Harry Styles and Taylor Swift plates and cups in a shop window

The grounds of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden were still in winter mode, but the greenhouses were full of flowers.

a stuffed animal next to a plant
Mojo enjoying flowers at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Bury St. Edmunds

Steve and I were delighted with Bury St. Edmunds. Even though it’s a small town of only 35,000 people, there is a lot to do. We saw two great shows at the APEX Theater and learned more than we wanted to about the history of capital punishment in England at the Moyse Hall Museum.

The most interesting thing we did was the Masters of the Air tour. We learned about the role Bury St. Edmunds played in WWII and the large number of U.S. service members stationed there.

A lighted statue of a man shot with arrows
A statue of St. Edmund, the original patron saint of England

Here is the story of St. Edmund.

In Bury St. Edmunds we pet sat for two loveable dogs, Angus and Mollie. You can read about our pet sitting experiences in “Everything You Need to Know About Pet Sitting While Traveling.”

a dog looking in a door
Angus wanting back in
Mighty Mollie and Angus at play

The Abbey Gardens includes the ruins of a Benedictine abbey, gardens, and St. Edmundsbury Cathedral.

a stone building with a gate
The 12th-century Abbey Gate, entrance to Abbey Gardens
Ruins with a church in the background
Some of the abbey ruins in Abbey Gardens with St. Edmundsbury Cathedral in the distance
a rainy winter garden and a sign on a brick wall
The Old English Rose Garden in the Abbey Garden
the exterior of St. Edmundsbury Cathedral
The exterior of St. Edmundsbury Cathedral
stained glass windows
Stained glass windows in St. Edmundsbury Cathedral

London

Our first stop in London was Hamley’s toy store. We searched all seven floors, looking for a carrier for Mojo, but we had no luck.

a collage of toys
There’s so much to see at Hamley’s toy store

Our first museum stop in London was the Churchill War Rooms. We loved it. You can tour the underground rooms that housed a British government command center during WWII. Entry includes the Churchill Museum, where you can learn about Churchill’s life. Plan to spend several hours there.

a man at a table full of telephones and a photo of Winston Churchill
Top: a room in the Churchill War Rooms; Bottom: a photo of Winston Churchill surveying bomb damage

We appreciated the blue skies as we walked around the Borough of Westminster where we saw Big Ben and learned the difference between Westminster Abbey (Anglican) and Westminster Cathedral (Roman Catholic) You can read more about the difference here.

Big Ben against a blue sky with clouds
Our first view of Big Ben
the front of Westminster Abbey
The front of Westminster Abbey
the front of Westminster Cathedral
The front of Westminster Cathedral
two photos of mosaics
Mosaics in Westminster Cathedral

Of course, we filled up on fish and chips.

a plate of food with a hedgehog toy
Mojo marveling at the huge offering of fish and chips. I love the nod to vegetables – a tiny amount of mushy peas

Steve and I took a tour of Highgate Cemetery, one of the first privatized cemeteries in London. There were many foxes in the cemetery, but it was these two headstones that caught my eye.

headstones with text on them
Apparently, Henry was nicer than Gabriela; he was loved by all, but she was only loved by many

We also toured the Tower Bridge, which we loved. There are glass floors high above the road. Many people were afraid to walk on them, but those who weren’t scared had a blast.

The exterior and interior of the Tower Bridge
Clockwise from top: the Tower Bridge exterior, one of the glass floors in the elevated walkway, and sculptures in the bridge

Until Next Time

If you’ve visited Cambridge, Bury St. Edmunds, or London, Steve and I would love to hear about your favorite places and experiences.

Happy traveling,
Linda

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The Fascinating and Sordid History of Crossbones Graveyard

Regular readers of our blog know that Steve and I like to explore cemeteries. While in London in the spring of 2024, we toured the well-known Highgate Cemetery. However, the lesser-known Crossbones Graveyard and Garden of Remembrance was more compelling and memorable.

In this post, you will learn about the history of Crossbones and perhaps be inspired to visit it, too.

Chalkboard welcoming people to Crossbones Graveyard
Come on in

What is Crossbones Graveyard and Garden of Remembrance?

Crossbones was an unconsecrated burial ground for prostitutes, paupers, criminals, and other outcasts from post-medieval times until its closure in 1853.

Today, it’s a place to remember those that society failed.

It’s believed that 15,000 people were buried there, some in mass graves.

Construction work in the 1990s revealed that around half the people buried there were children. It’s estimated that 40% of the bodies were fetuses and infants due to a high infant mortality rate in this impoverished part of the city.

Where is Crossbones?

Crossbones is at the intersection of Union Street and Redcross Way in the Bankside area of the Borough of Southwark. It is easy to reach by bus, underground, or train.

It is a short walk from several interesting sights, including the Shard, the Borough Market, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Clink Prison Museum, and the Southwark Cathedral.

The History of Crossbones

A graveyard for the outcast dead

The first known reference to Crossbones was in a 1598 survey of London by English historian and antiquarian John Stow.

Crossbones was in a seventy-acre area on the south bank of the River Thames opposite the City of London. The area was called the Liberty of the Clink (The Liberty). This area included the Clink Prison and was the place to engage in unsavory activities like gambling, bear baiting, and visiting brothels.

From the 12th to the 17th century, the Liberty was not under the jurisdiction of the king but under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester (Church of England).

A hand-drawn map of The Liberty
A hand-drawn map of The Liberty

The prostitutes who worked in this area were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester. They were sometimes called Winchester Geese because the word goose was slang for prostitute. To be bitten by a Winchester Goose meant that you had a venereal disease.

After its closure in 1853, Crossbones fell into neglect and faced threats from development projects. Parts of the graveyard were used for industry and storage of construction material.

A graveyard rediscovered

In the 1990s, the graveyard was rediscovered during the construction of the Underground’s Jubilee Line. Fortunately, the significance of its history was recognized.

In 1996, writer John Constable had a vision in which the spirit of a Winchester Goose revealed the secret history of Crossbones to him. For three years, the spirit revealed poems to Constable’s literary persona, John Crow.

These poems led Constable to write The Southwark Mysteries, plays based on Bankside’s history and folklore. They address social issues while drawing parallels between the past and present.

The Southwark Mysteries have been performed in Shakespeare’s Globe and the Southwark Cathedral. You can read more about Constable’s vision and The Southwark Mysteries here.

From 1996 until 2019, Constable, along with Katy Nicholls, worked to transform Crossbones into a shrine and sanctuary. They founded The Friends of Crossbones in 2004. Of the group, Constable said, “Our main concern is to protect the identity of Crossbones as a public garden of remembrance for outcasts, outsiders and other marginalized people…”

Since June 2004, The Friends of Crossbones has held a vigil at 7 pm on the 23rd of each month. You can find information about the vigils and other events here.

This haunting song, “The Graveyard of the Outcast Dead” was performed by Frank Turner at the October 2019 vigil.

In 2020, a 30-year lease was granted to Bankside Open Spaces Trust for Crossbones to be maintained as a public garden.

For the deep-diving history buffs, here is an activist timeline from 1990-2020.

Crossbones today

A small, fenced area contains the modern-day Crossbones Graveyard and Garden of Remembrance. You won’t find tombstones and gravesites here. You will find an assortment of items that honor those unfortunate to end up here.

a collage of skulls and skeletons
Skulls and skeletons in the graveyard

There are also remembrances of marginalized groups and those who died by suicide.

a statue of a man with wings sitting on a pillar
The Trans-Angel sculpture for transgender people who were murdered because of transphobia
a card with a clip on a wood surface
A remembrance for lives lost to suicide

As of this writing, Crossbones is open every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from noon to 2 p.m. It is free to visit. There is a box for donations.

You can learn more about Crossbones on their website.

What I Took Away from Crossbones

I was touched by many things at Crossbones, but my biggest takeaway was the church’s hypocrisy. To license women to be prostitutes and then deny them a Christian burial while disregarding the role brothel owners and customers played is disgraceful yet unsurprising. In addition, the bishops benefitted from the brothels’ revenue.

Final Thoughts

If you like to explore graveyards and cemeteries while learning about history, don’t miss Crossbones. You won’t have a peaceful stroll through treed grounds but you will see eclectic displays that are sure to touch your heart.

You can read about my favorite cemetery, Paris’s Cemetery Montmartre here.

On the lighter side, why not visit the The O2 Entertainment District in London? You can read all about the fun things to do there in our post, “Your Ultimate Guide to The O2.”

Until Next Time

Have you been to Crossbones? What did you think of it? Have you found other unique burial places and memorial gardens around the world? If so, please share. Just drop a note in the comments section below.

Happy (and memorable) traveling,
Linda

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Your Ultimate Guide to The O2

Are you planning on visiting London? You’ll love it. London is chock full of amazing things to see and do, but if you’re looking for something different, look no further than The O2 Entertainment District.

A Little Background

Steve and I spent two months in London in the spring of 2024. We spent part of this time pet sitting, which you can read about here. The rest of the time was spent enjoying the fantastic things this city offers.

One of the many things that impressed us was The O2 Entertainment District (often referred to as The O2). It is a 20,000-seat arena surrounded by shops, restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, and various amusements.

A map of the O2 Entertainment District
The O2 map

The O2 is a distinctive landmark in London, though not a particularly attractive one. It is a large white tent-like dome with twelve yellow masts.

The O2 Arena entrance
The front of The O2

Facts About The O2

The complex is located in southeast London on the Greenwich Peninsula.

Originally known as the Millennium Dome, it was built to house the Millennium Experience, a exhibition celebrating the turn of the millennium. It opened on December 31, 1999 and was open every day until December 31, 2000.

The structure was repurposed and reopened as The O2 in 2007.

8.9 million people visited The O2 in 2023.

Features of the building symbolize time:
The diameter is 365 meters, symbolizing the number of days in a year.
The height is 52 meters, symbolizing the number of weeks in a year.
The 12 yellow masts, you guessed it, symbolize the number of months in a year.

What Can You Do at The O2?

Be Entertained

The O2 Arena

The arena seats 20,000 people and is one of the busiest in the world. It’s the third largest in the U.K. after Manchester’s Co-op and Manchester Arenas.

Upcoming big names include Billie Eilish (for 7 nights in July 2025), Noah Kahan (for 3 nights in August and September 2024), the Harlem Globetrotters (in April 2024) and a throwback to my teens, Deep Purple (November 2024).

Click here to see upcoming shows.

The O2 arena is too small for Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour. The London leg of the tour will take place over eight nights in June and August 2024 in the 90,000-seat Wembley Stadium. Taylor has only performed two songs at The O2. In January 2023, she surprised attendees of a show by The 1975, when she covered their song, “The City,” and debuted her song, “Anti-Hero.”

Indigo at The O2

For those acts that haven’t reached O2 Arena status, there is Indigo at The O2. This 750-seat club hosts live music events, after-shows, and private events.

See what’s happening at Indigo.

Mama Mia! The Party

a building with a large sign on it
The entrance to Mama Mia! The Party

Steve and I saw this but chose not to do it because of the cost. Now, as I’m sitting in the Canary Islands writing about it, I am sorry we didn’t do it.

This four-hour event combines a show based on the Mama Mia concept with a four-course Mediterranean meal.

Overall, the Trip Advisor reviews are favorable, but some people complained about being unable to see the show and weak storylines. However, people loved the audience participation.

Find out more about Mama Mia! The Party here.

Cineworld

If you’re in the mood to sit back and munch popcorn, head to Cineworld. You will have some choices to make, though. In addition to 2D and 3D movies, some are shown in 4DX with moving seats and effects such as wind, water, scent, and strobe lighting. There is also a VIP option with recliners, a bar, and the Superscreen option.

See what’s playing at Cineworld.

Shop

Outlet Shopping

There are dozens of outlet stores offering a wide variety of products, including many designer brands. You can see the list of stores here.

The O2 Shop

Since this is The O2, it wouldn’t be complete without an O2 store for all your tech needs.

a collage of a shopping mall
Shop, then shop some more

Play

Boom Battle Bar

Try your hand at axe throwing or play games like beer/prosecco pong, indoor golf, and pool. You can also show off your performer chops in the karaoke booths. Of course, you can fuel up with food and drinks, too.

It’s best to book games in advance, especially on the weekend. Also, be sure to read any special instructions for the activities you choose.

Only people 18 or older are allowed in Boom Battle Bar after 9 p.m.

You can find Boom Battle Bar locations throughout London and in other U.K. cities. Check them out here.

For a special treat, try the 90-minute bottomless brunch. It looks like tons of fun with changing themes and a DJ. Brunch is offered on Saturday.

Oxygen Activeplay Trampoline Park

At Oxygen Activeplay, you can fall into foam pits, bounce high on trampolines, and play dodgeball. You can even throw yourself onto a giant airbag. This place is sure to wear out your kids. There is a program for toddlers, too.

Bounce on over here to find out more.

Indoor Sky Diving

Get your adrenaline pumping at iFLY London Indoor Skydiving at The O2.

Bowling at Hollywood Bowl

Book your lane and test your bowling chops at the Hollywood Bowl. After that, you can shoot some pool or play a few arcade games. Now that you’ve worked up an appetite, the Hollywood Diner awaits you.

TOCA Social

TOCA Social describes itself as an interactive football and dining experience. I understand dining, but what is interactive football? This article from 2 Adults 3 Children explains it well.

For my U.S. and Canadian readers, we’re talking about soccer, not the football we are used to.

You can enjoy a more relaxed game of foosball, ham it up in the photo booths, and grab something to eat or drink. Don’t miss the Willy Wonka-inspired dessert room.

Selfie Factory

The Selfie Factory is just what it sounds like, a chance to take oodles of selfies in cool settings.

Steve and I didn’t ham it up at the Selfie Factory but did something similar with our daughters in Budapest, where there are two Museum of Sweets and Selfies locations. We all had so much fun at the first location that we also went to the second one.

a collage of people in different poses
Steve, me, and our daughters at the Museum of Sweets and Selfies in Budapest

I highly recommend this for all ages.

Climb over The O2 with Up at The O2

You can walk over The O2! Steve and I did this and loved it.

a man and woman standing on a platform
Steve and I at the top of The O2

Even if you fear heights, give it a try. The staff is super-safety conscious, and you are harnessed and securely tethered to thick cables.

The climb is on a rubber track suspended above the dome. You must wear appropriate footwear (walking shoes or boots with a deep tread). Steve and I used our hiking boots, but most of the people in our group used the Ecco brand boots provided at no extra cost. The boots looked like they were in excellent condition.

The night before the climb, I worried about carrying my essentials as I didn’t have pants pockets. My worrying was in vain; jackets and vests with zippered pockets were available free of charge.

The entire experience took 90 minutes. Learn more on the Up at The O2 website.

Our takeaway: working our latches through the cable supports was a bit tedious, and the views from the top weren’t particularly impressive. Despite that, we felt a great sense of accomplishment when we took that final stop off the track.

For a detailed account of this experience, check out “Climb The O2: A London Icon” by Two Traveling Texans.

Eat and Drink

Choose from more than 40 restaurants and bars. You can use the drop-down menus to search by category and location.

a bar with shelves of liquor
Doesn’t this look inviting?

How to Get to The O2

You can get to The O2 by taking the Underground’s Jubilee Line to the North Greenwich stop. There are also several bus routes that will take you to the North Greenwich Station. For something different, how about taking an Uber Boat by Thames Clippers? It will cost quite a bit more, but it’s a fun way to travel in London.

Steve and I rely on Google Maps to find our way around. You can also find detailed information on how to get to The O2 on their website.

Until Next Time

As you can see, there is a lot to do at The O2. Please be sure to check the website before you visit to make sure what you’re interested in is available.

If you’re looking for something different in London, consider the Crossbones Graveyard and Garden of Remembrance. You can read about it in “The Fascinating and Sordid History of Crossbones Graveyard.”

Happy traveling,
Linda

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Everything You Need to Know About Pet Sitting While Traveling

Are you a long-term or full-time traveler looking for a way to lower your travel costs? Are you a pet lover? If so, pet sitting while traveling may be just what you’re looking for.

Steve and I joined TrustedHousesitters in the spring of 2023 and began pet sitting in early 2024. We have found the TrustedHousesitters’ website easy to use and have had some good experiences with our sits.

Despite that, it didn’t work out quite as we’d hoped. After six sits, we feel we didn’t get what we wanted from it.

Read on to learn what pet sitting involves, its pros and cons, and how our sits worked out.

All money is in U.S. dollars.

Why We Started Pet Sitting

As retired full-time travelers, we keep a sharp eye on our budget. We balance time in expensive places with time in less expensive places. It turns out we prefer the expensive places; after all, they are expensive for a reason.

Pet sitting seemed like the perfect way to keep our wallets happy when traveling in expensive places. For a little of our time and a bit of work, we could save a bundle on lodging and spend time with cats and dogs.

We envisioned well-appointed apartments in the world’s most exciting cities. We would be sitting primarily for cats, so we’d have plenty of time to enjoy the cosmopolitan delights.

The reality didn’t quite match the vision.

The Petsitting Process

Getting started with pet sitting

We chose TrustedHousesitters, the leading pet-sitting platform. Even though the name is TrustedHousesitters, virtually every listing is for pet sitting.

As a sitter, you post a profile of yourself, including photos of you interacting with pets. You also provide references and pay the annual fee. Membership fees start at $129 a year. TrustedHousesitters then runs a background check on you. If all goes well, you are ready to book your first sit.

Finding sits

Finding sits to apply for can be a lot of work. You have to comb through many listings, but the sort buttons make this easier. Most listings have plenty of detail, which helps you narrow down your list.

The next step is to apply for a sit by sending a short message introducing yourself. We used a form letter and made the appropriate changes.

All of this except the application message is similar to finding other lodgings. What makes pet sitting a little more time consuming is that you often have to wait days (and sometimes longer) before you know if the homeowner is interested. Homeowners can accept up to five applications for each sit, so they may not decide until they have received and reviewed five applications. You may spend hours searching for and applying to sits, only to be rejected for all of them.

This happened to us in the U.K. Our first three sits (two in the U.S. and one in the U.K.) were slam dunks. We felt invincible. Then we started looking for places in London and were passed over for several. Not only is it hard not to take it personally, but those rejections represent hours and hours of our time.

If the homeowner chooses you, he will send an offer with the relevant dates. You can then agree to sit.

Before we agreed to any sits, we arranged a video call with the homeowner to get a feel for each other and discuss the sit in more detail.

Before the sit

You don’t have to do much before the sit, but the homeowner may want to meet with you before the sit starts. He will show you around the house, and you’ll meet the pets. This is a good time to address any last-minute questions.

We met with every pet and pet parent before the sit started. These visits always took a few hours.

We stayed in a hotel for at least one night before every sit. Sometimes, we stayed for two nights if we were traveling a long distance to allow for delays. We always booked a hotel for the night the sit ended since we couldn’t count on the pet parents getting home early enough for us to get to another location. All the people we sat for invited us to stay with them the night before they left and the night they came home, but we weren’t comfortable with that.

During the sit

Besides the typical pet care duties, many pet parents request regular photos and updates about their pets. Steve was a rock star at doing this, never missing a chance to share a cute photo or video of the pets.

After the sit

As with Airbnb, the homeowner and the sitter review each other. Unfortunately, TrustedHousesitters’ reviews are not as detailed as Airbnb’s.

If you get good reviews as a sitter, you may find people requesting your services. We had a few requests, but they didn’t fit in with our plans.

TrustedHousesitters’ guidelines

Below are TrustedHousesitters’ guidelines for sitters and pet parents.

The guide for sitters

The guide for pet parents

For international sits

If you are going to a foreign country to pet sit, there is the possibility that the customs officer could consider this a job. If so, you would need a work permit. Without one, you could be denied entry.

According to TrustedHousesitters, this has not been a widespread problem; however, there have been some cases. Here is TrustedHousesitters’ Advice for International Housesitting. There are also letters you can present to customs for the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia.

My advice: Don’t mention anything about pet sitting. If asked what you will be doing, you are sightseeing. If asked where you are staying, you are staying with friends. Be sure to have the homeowner’s name and address available.

The Pros and Cons of Pet Sitting While Traveling

The pros

Free accommodations.

More room than in a hotel and better equipped than Airbnbs.

Exposure to places you may not have considered. Steve and I enjoyed our time in Bury St. Edmunds, and it’s unlikely we would have otherwise discovered it.

Meeting nice people. Everyone we sat for was friendly and welcoming. It was obvious they cared about our comfort and were grateful for the care we gave their pets.

The internet in homes is much better than in many hotels and Airbnbs.

The biggie – the pets. Every pet we have sat for was a joy. Molly, the East Sheen cockapoo, even slept on our bed.

a man standing next to a dog
Steve and Aspen

The cons

Most of the listings are in suburban and rural areas without many attractions.

If the situation is less than ideal, you are tied down because there is a pet that needs care. You can’t walk away like you could in a hotel or Airbnb. TrustedHousesitters will back you up if the situation is dreadful; otherwise, you have to grin and bear it.

Applying for sits can be time consuming as described above.

You may incur hotel costs before and after the sit.

You do not have complete freedom since pets are depending on you. We have tried to find sits with only cats so we have more freedom, but we have not been successful.

This may not bother others, but Steve and I try to keep our moving to a minimum. We prefer to stay in one place for four weeks. You do not have that control with pet sitting, although you can search for specific durations.

From the time we started our first England sit until we left the country 86 days later, we moved 12 times. That’s once a week!

The Reality of Staying in Someone Else’s Home

People’s houses have more room, better internet, more towels, and more cooking tools than Airbnbs. They are also full of the owner’s possessions and may be cluttered or dirty.

Steve has mild OCD that hits him hardest in the kitchen, although any clutter can worsen it. We couldn’t do much about the clutter, and Steve spent far too much time cleaning kitchens. In one house, the clutter was so bad that we had to pile things on the owners’ bed and return them to their locations before they arrived home.

The other issue was room for our clothes, food, and toiletries. Some homeowners did a good job making room for us, but others weren’t so considerate. At a minimum, pet sitters staying long term need shelves or drawers for their clothes, a place to hang clothes, a place for toiletries, and a place for their food in a cabinet and the refrigerator.

Make Sure You do This One Thing

One of the most important things you should do is be sure you understand the dates and times of the sit. Pet parents sometimes use the day before they travel as the start date because they want to meet you and review details the day before they leave.

On our second sit, that is what the homeowner did. We planned to arrive in town two days early to allow for delays. After we arrived, we found out the sit started a day later, so we spent three nights at a hotel instead of two.

You may find the same situation at the end of a sit if the homeowner is arriving home late and assumes you will stay over that night.

Knowing exactly when they are leaving and returning is critical to avoiding mix ups. Get flight info and details before the sit starts.

Was It Worth It?

Overall, yes.

We got to meet some wonderful people and pets. We haven’t had pets for the last six years, so it was an excellent opportunity to spend time with some. It was kind of like being a grandparent. We had the fun, then got to give them back.

We also saved a boatload of bucks (see below).

How much did we save?

To determine how much we saved by pet sitting, I multiplied the number of nights we pet sat by the average cost of accommodations per night. I then subtracted the hotel costs before and after the sits and the annual fee for TrustedHousesitters.

I came up with two numbers: the first uses the average Airbnb nightly cost in central London for a net savings of $12,700, and the second uses the average price of a hotel near the pet-sitting locations for a savings of $7,300.

We pet sat for 82 nights. Using the higher accommodation costs, we saved an average of $155 per night. We saved an average of $89 per night using the lower accommodation costs.

Either way, that’s some major moolah.

Will we continue to pet sit?

Our first three sits were positive experiences. Our sit in Asheville not only filled some free time, but we got to see a city neither of us had been to. The Tonawanda sit was a boon as we got to spend three weeks in our hometown with low accommodation costs. Our third sit, in Bury St. Edmunds, allowed us to see a fascinating part of England.

The last three sits led us to the decision that we won’t continue pet sitting right now, although we may revisit it in the future. These sits left us marking time since there was little to do near the homes. Central London was an hour or so away from all three of them. Two of the dogs could be left for several hours, and one couldn’t be left at all. For us, it wasn’t worth the travel time it would take to get into the city, and we had already seen many London sights in between sits. For other people, the savings may well be worth the inconvenience.

Even though Steve and I aren’t going to continue pet sitting, we still recommend TrustedHousesitters.

Our Pet-Sitting Experiences

Booking our first few sits

We initially planned to book sits in Western Europe, but one of the first sits that caught our eyes was in Tonawanda, New York. I grew up there, and Steve grew up in the adjacent village of Kenmore. When we saw this sit, we knew it was a great opportunity to visit family still in that area.

We had time to fill between Christmas in Jacksonville, Florida, and the Buffalo sit in February. We found a sit that was between the two in Asheville, North Carolina.

After that, we booked one in Bury St. Edmunds, England, and three in London, England.

Our sit experiences

Our six sits all had one thing in common: pleasant homeowners who were easy to work with and communicated well. All the duties were similar: feeding the pets, cleaning up after them, and walking the dogs. The number of walks and the time of day varied.

#1 Aspen in Asheville, North Carolina, USA

Aspen was the perfect dog for our inaugural pet sit. We cared for her for eleven nights in a modern three-story home overlooking woods. We were only a ten-minute drive to downtown Asheville and a twenty-five-minute drive to the Biltmore Estate.

The best part of the sit was how sweet Aspen was. She would lie on the sofa with her head in my lap while Steve and I watched television or I read.

a dog sleeping in a dog bed with stuffed animals
Aspen and friends

The homeowners left us ground passes to the Biltmore Estate, which saved us quite a bit of money.

There was one glitch. The day we expected the homeowners back, they sent a message saying that the weather would be good for flying the next day. Whoops! The end date in the listing was wrong. Steve and I had already booked a hotel room in town as we were flying out the next day, but the hosts reimbursed us for that, and we spent the extra night with Aspen.

#2 Baer and Nikki in Tonawanda, New York, USA

This seventeen-night sit was perfect for us because it allowed us to spend time with family and even have our daughters join us for a week. We stayed in a comfortable one-story house close to shopping. The house was filled with colorful art.

Although he was thirteen years old, Baer the terrier was energetic. He even got the zoomies almost every day. The cat, Nikki, preferred to keep to herself, although she did climb into my lap once. Unfortunately, I scared her away when I yelped as she climbed up my chest.

a cat sitting on a chair and a dog looking up
Nikki and Baer

The homeowner is in the catering business and had the refrigerator filled with tasty treats. He also left us a gift card to a local restaurant.

We had one issue. We expected the homeowner to return late one evening only to find out that he had changed his plans but he didn’t tell us as he assumed we were staying that night. We had booked a hotel room for that night. We stayed at the hotel, then returned to the house the next morning to ensure Baer was let out and both pets were fed before we headed to the airport.

After this experience and the one with Aspen’s owners, we realized we had to be more diligent about getting dates and times down.

#3 Angus and Mollie in Bury St. Edmunds, England

Steve and I spent sixteen fun-filled days with Angus, a six-year-old cocker spaniel, and Mollie, a ten-year-old Jack Russel terrier. We stayed in a charming two-story house that was clean and comfortable. These homeowners did a great job of clearing room for our belongings. There was a grocery store nearby, and we were a fifteen-minute walk to the town center.

Both dogs were well-behaved and super-lovable. The best part was the daily cuddles we had with Angus, and also a few from Mollie, who would jump in if Angus relinquished his spot.

a collage of dogs and a man
Clockwise from upper left: Steve with Angus, Molly with her favorite ball, and Mollie and Angus in the wrong beds

We had never heard of Bury St. Edmunds, a town of 35,000 people. Even though it’s small, there is a lot to see there. The people in town are some of the friendliest we’ve ever met.

#4 Molly in East Sheen, London, England

Molly, a six-year-old cockapoo, was the most affectionate of the dogs we sat, and that’s saying something. We also took care of two guinea pigs named Hazel and Maple. We stayed in a three-story house.

Besides being intelligent and loving, Molly was the best walker.

a dog lying on a bed
Molly, the super snuggler

There were a few parks in the area, but besides Kew Gardens, no major sights were nearby.

#5 Simba in Redhill, England

Simba, a four-year-old Husky German Shepard mix, gave us a run for our money. He was sweet and well-behaved but was too strong for Steve to control on walks. I didn’t even try. Being young, he wanted to play a lot but didn’t understand the concept of dropping a ball so we could throw it again. And tug-a-wars with him were a losing battle.

a collage of a dog lying on the ground with a toy
Simba with his coveted toys

Redhill is a town south of London with very little to do. We had to take a bus to get groceries. But the most challenging part was the house. It was a small terraced house, just thirteen feet wide but three stories tall. It was very cluttered, with several layers of outerwear hanging in the hall, which left no room for our jackets. The disarray continued throughout the house. We spent the first day cleaning, which is not what we signed up for.

#6 Poppy in Brockley, London, England

By the time we got to Poppy’s house for a sixteen-day sit, we knew it was our last. Even so, we made sure we fulfilled our commitment. The house was our second terraced house, but bigger and cleaner than the previous one.

Poppy is an intelligent Cockapoo who dislikes other dogs, skateboards, and bikes. Except for this and her overly-keen watchdog senses, she was well behaved, settling down when told and willingly going into her crate at bedtime.

a dog lying on a couch with a ball
Sweet Poppy in her favorite spot

We knew when we took this sit that Poppy couldn’t be left home alone, but she could ride on trains. We agreed to take turns going out if the dog couldn’t come with us.

More About Life on the Road

Find out about living the dream in “The Surprising Truth About Full-Time Travel and “12 Full-Time Travel Questions Answered.”

Until Next Time

Have you tried pet sitting while traveling? If so, drop a comment below. Steve and I would love to hear about your experience. If you are considering it, maybe this post will help you decide.

Happy traveling,
Linda

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Everything You Need to Know About Hot Air Ballooning in Cappadocia

I’m sure you’ve seen photos of hot air balloons flying over the otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia. Maybe you are hoping to do this, perhaps you’re a bit afraid, or you might wonder if it’s worth the cost.

Wind and Whim to the rescue. Here is everything you need to know about hot air ballooning in Cappadocia.

A Little Background

When Steve and I spent six nights in Cappadocia in September 2022, taking a hot air balloon ride was at the top of our list of things to do.

Well, it was at the top of my list. Steve was apprehensive because he avoids anything that could be dangerous and is unnecessary, like carnival rides. After giving it some thought, he decided to do it. I was surprised and pleased.

Until the minute Steve got on the balloon, I wasn’t sure he would go through with it, but he was glad he did. He will be the first to tell you it wasn’t the least bit scary.

We flew with Voyager Balloons, and everything went perfectly. We didn’t book as early as we should have, so the 60-minute flight was full. We booked the 75-minute flight. 60 minutes would have been plenty. We paid $270 each for the 75-minute flight. As you will see below, the prices have increased.

a hot air balloon ready to take off at dawn
Our balloon – ready for boarding

Cappadocia Basics

What is Cappadocia?

Cappadocia is a region in Central Turkey full of valleys, caves, and unique towers and cones called fairy chimneys. Its towns include Goreme, Avanos, Urgup, Kayseri, Uchisar, and Derinkuyu.

a collage of Cappadocia landscapes
Cappadocia landscapes

Where should I stay in Cappadocia?

Goreme is the most popular place to stay, but many other options exist. This article by Goats on the Road can help you decide.

We chose Goreme because it is centrally located, and there were plenty of reasonably priced hotels there.

a man and woman standing on a balcony with a view of Goreme
Steve and I in Goreme

How do I get to Cappadocia?

Getting to Cappadocia takes a little while because it is not close to other popular tourist cities.

Here is a chart that shows the shortest number of hours it takes to travel from four popular cities in Turkey to Goreme. The data is from Rome2Rio.com.

Traveling byFrom IstanbulFrom AnkaraFrom AntalyaFrom Bodrum
Car8.547.512
Bus13.5 4.58.515
Train14 7NANA
Plane2.53.51.255.25

If you fly, you will fly to either Kayseri or Nevsehir. If you aren’t renting a car, you can get a shuttle to your hotel. It takes one hour to drive from Kayseri to Goreme. The drive from Nevsehir to Goreme takes twenty minutes.

We flew into Kayseri and booked a transfer with Goreme Transfer. Our driver was reckless enough that one passenger filmed the drive. I would have liked to get off, but we were driving through a rural area, so we held on and hoped for the best. We used Cappadocia Express for our trip back to the airport, and that driver was much better.

Both of these transfers cost $10 per person. A private transfer for $80 was also an option.

How do I get around Cappadocia?

The village of Goreme is small and walkable, but you will need more than your feet to see many of the Cappadocian highlights. Renting a car is an option. You can find taxis readily enough, and there are also local buses, but finding information about them is difficult.

The Balloons

Why are there so many hot air balloons in Cappadocia?

The climate in Cappadocia is dry, with hot summers and cold winters. Combined with the unique landscape, it is an ideal place for a balloon ride. The best times of year to visit are from April to June and September to October, but the balloons fly all year.

Are hot air balloons safe?

You can die in a hot air balloon accident. But you probably won’t. According to this article by BBC Travel, “Being killed by a shark, a lightning strike or even falling into the Grand Canyon (which, shockingly, leads to about 12 deaths per year) are all more likely.”

In Turkey, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, the same agency that regulates airlines, regulates the balloon industry. This agency decides if it is safe to fly on a given day. Flights may be canceled as late as the morning of the flight if the weather is not conducive to safe flying.

Pilots must undergo training as described here.

An accident can happen when two balloons collide vertically, causing the lower balloon to deflate and descend to the ground too quickly. However, it is during the landing that an accident is most likely to occur.

For this reason, before your flight takes off, you will be instructed on the position to take at landing. You will crouch into a seated position with your back facing the direction of travel while holding on to ropes for balance.

How high do the balloons fly?

The balloons typically fly between 1,000 and 3,000 feet above ground level. The maximum allowed is 6,000 feet.

When do the balloons fly?

It’s romantic to ascend in a balloon as the sun breaches the horizon. But balloons in Cappadocia don’t fly at sunrise to be romantic. They do this because the winds are calmer at that time than later in the day when the sun has had a chance to warm the earth.

Which balloon company should I pick?

According to Tom Brosnahan, the travel expert behind Turkey Travel Planner, there are twenty-five balloon companies in Cappadocia. Four of the best companies according to Mr. Brosnahan are Atlas Balloons, Butterfly Balloons, Royal Balloon, and Voyager Balloons.

Here is information from Mr. Brosnahan about these companies and what to look for when chosing one.

What are the flight options?

The basket size, the maximum number of passengers, and the flight length vary. We were in a 20-person basket, but the number of passengers was capped at 16. There were five compartments on the basket. One was for the pilot and copilot. The other four had four passengers each. There was enough space to see well.

What does the experience include?

The four companies above offer similar experiences.

Your day starts long before the sun is up when you are picked up at your hotel. If you are staying far from Goreme, you should verify that your chosen company will pick you up.

You are taken to the company’s headquarters for breakfast. After that, you are driven to the launch site, where you can watch the balloons being inflated.

a group of hot air balloons at dawn
Getting the balloons ready

After the flight, there is a small ceremony that can include champagne or a non-alcoholic drink, medals or certificates, and photos. You are then driven back to your hotel.

The entire experience takes about three and a half hours.

What happens if my flight is canceled?

There is always the possibility your flight will be canceled due to rain, high winds, or stormy conditions. It may also be canceled if the weather is predicted to deteriorate.

Your company will try to reschedule you. If they can’t, they will refund your money.

How do I book a flight?

It is easy to book online. You can also book through a travel agent. Be wary of booking through a random person on the street. There are scams out there. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

How much does a flight cost?

As of this writing, you should expect to pay around $300 per person for your flight. Three of the above companies, Atlas, Butterfly, and Voyager, have easy-to-use price charts on their websites.

Royal does not have a price list on their site. You must fill out a form to find out if a flight is available for your date and what it will cost.

Here are the prices and flight options for Atlas, Butterfly, and Voyager as of July 1, 2024:

AtlasButterflyVoyager StandardVoyager Ultra Comfort
Length of flight60 minutes60 minutes60 minutes75 minutes
Number of people28162016
Cost$261$326$283$337

Are children allowed to ride?

Children must be at least six years old and at least 4’6” tall so they can see over the side of the basket. Children younger than six may also have difficulty assuming the landing position.

Is it worth it?

Absolutely. This was an experience Steve and I will never forget.

a group of people sitting on a vehicle
Back on terra firma with one of our pilots

Helpful Hints

1. Book your flight as soon as you know when you will be in Cappadocia. We wanted to fly with Royal Balloons, but they were booked. Voyager was our next choice, but we were too late to get the 60-minute flight, so we had to spend more.

2. Book the flight early in your trip so you have another chance if your flight is canceled. According to the travel company Cappadocia Balloon Tours, balloons fly 280 – 300 days a year.

A honeymooning couple at our hotel booked their flight for the last day of their stay, and it was canceled. Don’t be that couple.

3. Make sure that the van that picks you up is from your balloon company. One scam involves picking up balloon riders and taking them to another company, which gives the driver a finder’s fee.

4. Check the company’s cancelation policy before you book. Butterfly and Voyager have their policies on their websites. I did not see any for Atlas or Royal.

5. To learn more about this adventure, check out Royal Balloon’s FAQs.

More About Turkey

Prepare for your trip to Cappadocia with “18 Things To Know Before Visiting Cappadocia.

Expand your horizons along the Turkish Coast in “6 Cities, 6 Vibes On the Turkish Riviera.”

Find out what to expect in Istanbul in “Visiting Istanbul: The Good, The Bad, And The Startling.”

And if you’re crazy about cats, check out “Turkey Is For Cat Lovers.”

Until Next Time

I hope this post has inspired you to visit Turkey and indulge in the wonderful experience of hot air ballooning in Cappadocia.

Happy traveling,
Linda

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Slow Travel: Better for You, Better for the Environment

Hi there. Have you ever taken a vacation that plum wore you out?

Maybe you took a multi-day tour that didn’t provide enough downtime.

Perhaps you got tired of packing and unpacking as you moved from city to city.

Or it could be that you saw so many sights in a short time that they have all gotten jumbled up in your memory.

If you relate to any of these, slow travel might be right for you.

Steve and I have been traveling slowly since 2018 and highly recommend it.

In this post, I will explain what slow travel is, what the benefits are, how we practice slow travel, and how you can, too.

What is Slow Travel?

If you search the internet for “what is slow travel?” you’ll find varying definitions.

Some, like this Conde Nast Traveler article “What Does the Phrase “Slow Travel” Actually Mean?” stress moving from place to place in the most environmentally friendly way even if it takes longer.

Some focus on connecting to the local culture and people, as in “What is Slow Travel? And How to Do It” by Remote Year.

World Packers proposes rejecting conventional tourism and being open to unique and immersive experiences.

I think this definition from StudySmarter UK says it best:

“Slow travel is the art of not rushing around when traveling. The purpose of traveling slowly is to take in the sights, get to know the place better and have a local feel of it, creating lasting memories and connections.”

No matter how you define slow travel (also known as sustainable travel, mindful travel, slow tourism, and low-impact travel), putting it into practice can make your trips more memorable and meaningful.

Benefits of Slow Travel

Less stress

Traveling slowly reduces your stress level, and who doesn’t want that? Since travel is already full of stress, why add more?

By keeping your plans flexible and allowing free time, you are less likely to panic when something goes wrong. If you don’t see attraction A today, you’ll see it tomorrow.

Slow travel also encourages you to be picky about what you want to see. When we go to a new place, Steve and I list things to see and do, then, we prioritize them. By choosing which things are the highest priority, we can enjoy them leisurely.

Lower costs

Besides having less stress, slow travel helps you spend less.

The most apparent savings are on transportation. The less you move around, the less you spend.

But you can also save big on accommodations, especially if you use Airbnb. There is backlash against Airbnb and other home-sharing companies, but that’s an issue for another day. Frankly, until someone comes up with an alternative that offers as much as we get on Airbnb for a comparable price, we will continue to use it.

The way to save big on Airbnb is to book long term. Many hosts give discounts for weekly and monthly stays. The monthly discounts are usually a higher percentage than the weekly ones. Our average nightly rate for a month’s stay in an Airbnb is $70 compared to $120 for a hotel room. If you book an Airbnb with a kitchen, you can cook meals, too.

You can save even more if you forego the rental car and use public transportation.

More profound and authentic experiences

This benefit is near and dear to my heart. I love the feeling I get when I’ve been somewhere long enough that things become familiar and I feel at home.

It can be as simple as shopping for groceries or conversing with a local on the bus. It might be trying that out-of-the-way restaurant tourists don’t know about. The memories of the places we’ve discovered and the people we’ve met when living like a local mean more to us than the typical tourist experiences do.

Opportunity for unexpected experiences

When you stay in one place longer, you have time to wander. Often, we will be heading somewhere and discover other things along the way. Because we are traveling slowly, we can take the time to check them out.

We often come across cemeteries, parks, churches, and street art because we looked around the next corner.

a church with a garden and a graveyard
While heading elsewhere, we came across this church with colorful gardens and a cemetery in Walthamstow, London, U.K.

When you aren’t overbooked, and you spend time talking with locals and other tourists, you may learn about unexpected places and activities. We often discover something memorable after we arrive at our destination.

In Barcelona, it was stumbling across the delightful Parc del Laberint d’Horta, Barcelona’s oldest garden. There were surprises at every turn, and we had the park mostly to ourselves.

In the Galapagos Islands, it was heading into the highlands on electric scooters for a day of exploring. We came across a lava tunnel and a family-owned amusement center.

We searched for abandoned Austro-Hungarian forts in Pula, Croatia, where even their aquarium is inside one of these forts.

While in Cordoba, Argentina, we learned about the German-inspired hamlet of La Cumbrecita and spent a few days enjoying its solitude.

My favorite unexpected experience was visiting Medellin, Colombia’s District 13 (Comuna 13). Less than 25 years ago, District 13 was the most dangerous neighborhood in one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Today, it attracts tourists with its small businesses and street art. It was delightful to see the residents full of purpose, joy, and positive spirit.

Collage of slow travel adventures
Clockwise from upper left: the maze at Parc del Laberint d’Horta, Linda at a lava tunnel entrance in the Galapagos Islands, Steve in La Cumbrecita, Linda in La Cumbrecita, dancers in District 13, and Fort Giorgio in Pula

Less environmental impact

There are two ways slow travel can help the environment. One is to move around less, and the other is to take more environmentally friendly transportation methods, even if they take longer.

The first one is easy. Find a place you would love to explore and hunker down there for as long as possible.

We have found the second one more difficult. When Steve and I traveled from Budapest to Manchester, we considered taking a train since we had plenty of time. We would have spent almost 24 hours on four trains. In addition, work was being done on several stretches of track, so we would have had to use buses for parts of the journey. We chose to take a 6-hour flight instead.

Even though taking a train didn’t work in that case, we always consider it and other options.

For local transportation, the best thing for you and the environment is walking or cycling. You get the added benefits of exercise and seeing the sights along the way. You can also ride an electric scooter (if you are better at it than I am).

If none of these suit the situation, local public transportation (where available) is the way to go. Not only is it better for Mother Earth, but it is also a lot cheaper than renting a car.

Check out this article from The Travel to see how different transportation options rank.

How We Practice Slow Travel

Because we travel full-time, it is easy for Steve and I to practice slow travel. If we didn’t, we would burn out. We also need time to take care of day-to-day issues that can be ignored when you are on a short vacation.

We prefer to stay in one accommodation for four weeks. That gives us the benefit of Airbnb discounts and reduces the stress of packing and moving.

Since we have plenty of time in most places, we space out our sightseeing. We will usually pick one thing to do that will take several hours. Often, we find interesting things to see around that attraction or while traveling to and from it.

How You Can Practice Slow Travel

You don’t have to travel long-term or full-time to practice slow travel. The first step is defining what it means to you.

Will you seek out local experiences? Will you wander the area with no specific destination? Will you be mindful of the environmental impact of your transportation choices?

There is no right way to practice slow travel. You will know you’ve done it when the place you visited is etched on your soul.

Until Next Time

I hope you found this post engaging and thought-provoking. Are you ready to practice slow travel, or have you already done so? Let us know in the comment section below.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured image by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash.com

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Wind and Whim Update: January and February 2024

Greetings from London, where Steve and I have spent the last seven weeks waiting for nice weather. I hope wherever you are, spring is already working its magic.

We ended 2023 by spending Christmas with our daughters, Steph and Laura (aka the girls), and Steph’s roommate, Jeff, in Jacksonville, Florida. It was the first time we’ve been together at Christmas since 2019.

In January and February, we spent time in Jacksonville and Orlando, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; Asheville, North Carolina; and Tonawanda, New York (a suburb of Buffalo).

Here are the highlights of our travels for January and February 2024.

Florida Fun

Our Florida visit included spending as much time as possible with Steph and Laura. It is rewarding to see the lives they’ve built for themselves. Even if we are just sharing a meal or watching a movie, any time together as a family is the best.

We got to see a few family members and friends in Florida, but as always, our return to Jacksonville included a lot of doctors’ appointments and shopping, so we didn’t get to see everyone we had hoped to.

Here are some of the best parts of our Florida visit.

Making Sushi

Steve thought we should try making sushi while in Jacksonville. I thought this project was destined to fail, as it is an art.

After gathering the ingredients at an Asian market, Steve prepared the sushi rice. The next day, we got to work, each of us making one variety of sushi. I think we were all surprised at how well it turned out.

Steph had hoped to use salmon, but we soon learned that it would require at least a week to prepare salmon fillet so it is safe to eat raw. Here is information on how to do that.

Two photos of women making sushi
Steph crafting her sushi, and Laura showing off hers

Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary

Catty Shack is the #1 thing to do in Jacksonville on Trip Advisor, with good reason.

Steve, the girls, and I visited Catty Shack, a big cat sanctuary in Jacksonville. To say we were blown away would be an understatement. The animals are well cared for, and we could see how much the staff loved them. Catty Shack has been in operation for 30 years. I can’t believe we never went to this wonderful place when we lived in Jacksonville.

Catty Shack’s mission is to give forever homes to endangered big cats. You will also see foxes and coatimundis there. You can learn about the residents here.

Some of the animals have impressive enclosures like the one below. I imagine the pools would be tempting not only to the animals but also to the staff on hot summer days. Not all residents have luxury accommodations yet, but judging by what we saw, it’s just a matter of time.

A tiger at the Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary
Adrian, a female Siberian Tiger, in her decked-out home at Catty Shack

Even though we weren’t on a tour, we saw staff members and volunteers throughout the complex, and they were happy to share information and answer questions.

If you’re in the North Florida area and love animals, check out Catty Shack.

Barbie, The Movie

The girls, Steve, and I decided to watch Barbie. I wasn’t sure I would like it, and I couldn’t imagine Steve sitting through the entire movie. Boy, was I wrong. We all enjoyed it. I didn’t want to miss a word. Even if this isn’t your type of movie, you might want to give it a try.

The Lightner Museum in St. Augustine

Our long-time friends Greg and Terry came down from Tennessee for a long weekend. We did several things together, including touring the Kingsley Plantation and attending an improv show at First Coast Comedy, where Greg volunteered to go on stage and brought down the house with an inappropriate utterance.

We also visited the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S. It is less than an hour’s drive from Jacksonville but a world apart with its strong Spanish influence.

The museum’s stately Spanish Renaissance Revival style building began life in 1887 as the Hotel Alcazar, a resort hotel commissioned by Standard Oil founder Henry Flagler.

The hotel closed in 1931. In 1947, the building was purchased by Chicago publisher Otto C. Lightner, who turned it into a hobbies museum. Today, it holds an eclectic collection, from furniture to fine art, from salt and pepper shakers to newel post finials. Many items are from America’s Gilded Age (1870s-1890s).

Four photos inside the Lightner Museum
Inside the Lightner, clockwise from upper left: the former swimming pool, a lead glass panel, “Woman on Garden Bench,” artist unknown, a lead glass panel, “Cupid,” artist unknown, and a view of the cut glass collection

Kingsley Plantation

Kingsley Plantation is not large, but it packs a powerful punch. The plantation includes the planter’s house, the separate kitchen house (to reduce the risk of fire in the main house and keep the heat away from it), the slave quarter ruins (and one that has been restored), and the barn.

Owner’s house and slave quarter ruins at the Kingsley Plantation
The owner’s house and slave quarter ruins at the Kingsley Plantation

As always, it’s the stories that make history come alive, and Kingsley Plantation has some good ones. The plantation was built in 1797 by Zephaniah Kingsley, a slave trader and shipping magnate. He lived there for 25 years. Kingsley had four slave wives and nine mixed-race children.

His main wife, Anna, has a fascinating history. She was the daughter of a leader of the Wolof ethnic groups in modern-day Senegal. Her family were slaveholders.

Slave traders captured Anna when she was 13. She was purchased by Zephaniah Kingsley, who soon married her. He freed her from slavery when she turned 18. Spain controlled Florida at that time. They recognized three classes of people: white people, free persons of color, and enslaved persons.

Zephaniah died in 1843. After sorting out some legal hassles, the plantation ownership passed to Anna.

So Anna went from being the daughter of a slaveholder, to an enslaved person, to a free person of color and slaveholder herself.

It is free to visit the plantation, and an audio guide is available. Staff and volunteers are happy to answer questions and share their knowledge. It is a 35-minute drive between Kingsley Plantation and Catty Shack, so the two could easily be seen in one day.

A Short Stop in Savannah

But we weren’t done with January yet. The month ended with a few nights in Savannah. Our sightseeing included wandering Colonial Park Cemetery (the city’s oldest cemetery), dining at the Pirates’ House, lunching at Paula Deen’s restaurant, The Lady and Sons (good food, uninspired decor), strolling the near-empty streets at night, and taking an incredibly corny ghost tour.

We didn’t go to Bonaventure Cemetery once we discovered the Bird Girl statue is no longer there. It is now in the Telfair Museum of Art.

Here are two of our favorite things about Savannah.

The American Prohibition Museum

Children scooping up alcohol dumped by Prohibition agents
Children scooping up alcohol dumped by Prohibition agents (photo from Getty Images)

Our favorite activity was the American Prohibition Museum. It starts out a little hokey, but as you progress, there is a lot of memorabilia and interesting information.

Prohibition lasted 13 years, from 1920 to 1933. It banned the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. The consumption of alcohol wasn’t banned, and any alcohol people possessed before the start of prohibition was theirs to keep.

Before Prohibition, the alcohol industry was the 5th largest in the U.S. It is estimated that $11 billion of tax revenue was lost during Prohibition. New York State lost almost 75% of its tax revenue.

Prohibition also contributed to increased organized crime and the loss of jobs in related industries such as trucking and barrel making. Restaurants suffered because people preferred to eat at home, where they could also drink.

You can read more about Prohibition in this History Channel article.

The Thunderbird Inn with George Monk

When Steve and I were looking for a place to stay in Savannah, we blew off the Thunderbird Inn, fearing it would be substandard. We’re glad we reconsidered. This is not a luxury hotel, but it was clean and comfortable.

The Thunderbird dates back to the 1960s, and despite being remodeled in 2018, it has kept the relaxed 60s vibe. Popcorn, Moon Pies, RC Cola, and 60s tunes await your arrival. The hotel doesn’t serve a hot breakfast, but they have decadent donuts for the guests.

If you stay here, you can reserve the hotel’s mascot, a sock monkey named George Monk, and photograph him around town. George was well-behaved in public but got a little rowdy at night.

A sock monkey with two glasses of beer
George trying to steal our beer

On to Asheville

After Savannah, we drove to Asheville, North Carolina, for our first pet sit. It was a huge success. We cared for a medium-sized dog named Aspen and saw a little of the city. I will be writing more about our pet-sitting experiences in another post.

The highlights included the Biltmore Estate and the Pinball Museum.

The Biltmore Estate

Four views of the Biltmore Estate
The Biltmore Estate clockwise from top left: the grand dining room, the library, the conservatory, and the entry hall

In Asheville, we toured the Biltmore Estate. At 179,000 sq. feet or 16,600 sq. meters, it is the largest privately owned house in the U.S. I was shocked to learn the grand dining room is larger than our entire Jacksonville house.

The estate consists of the house, the grounds and gardens, a winery, and Antler Hill Village, which has shopping, dining, and live music. Visiting Biltmore is expensive. As of this writing, a ticket to the grounds (everything except touring the house) ranges from $50 to $85, depending on the day. Tickets to everything, including a house tour with an audio guide, range from $80 to $115. As pricey as the tickets are, the estate is well worth seeing. Our Asheville pet parents gave us ground passes, so we paid $47 each to add the house tour.

This Gilded Age mansion was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II from 1889-1895 in the Châteauesque style. The house cost $180 million in today’s dollars to build. Members of the Vanderbilt family lived there until 1956.

The estate grounds were open to the public for a fee before the house was completed. During the Great Depression, the house was opened to the public to raise revenue to run the estate and boost tourism in the Asheville area. Learn more about this in this article from the Winston-Salem Journal.

Biltmore House played a role in WWII when 79 pieces of art from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, were stored in its Music Room. The room was closed off from the rest of the house as tours continued. You can read more in this article.

The Second Floor Living Hall in Biltmore
Paintings in the Second Floor Living Hall pay homage to Richard Morris Hunt, Biltmore’s architect, and Frederick Law Olmsted, Biltmore’s landscape architect

The Asheville Pinball Museum

Steve and I love finding quirky things to do, and Asheville came through with the Asheville Pinball Museum. You can tour the museum for free or play as long as you like for $15. Some machines are display only, but there are still about 35 playable machines and 35 classic video games.

The pinball machine collection goes back to the 1930s. The machines are changed out to keep the experience fresh and do maintenance work. We saw the first machine with flippers, the 1947 Gottlieb Humpty Dumpty, and the best-selling machine of all time, Bally’s 1992 Addams Family.

Two pinball machines at the Asheville Pinball Museum
A machine from 1935 and Humpty Dumpty, the first machine with flippers

There is a snack bar where you can grab a soda or a brewski and a light bite. You can also buy T-shirts and other souvenirs. Here’s more about the Asheville Pinball Museum.

Even if you aren’t a pinball wizard, this place will awaken your inner gamer.

Shuffling Off to Buffalo (Well, Flying)

When Steve and I decided to try pet sitting, we intended to do it in Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand to keep costs down in those notoriously expensive places. However, the first sit that caught our eye was in the Town of Tonawanda, a suburb of Buffalo. I grew up there, and Steve grew up nearby. We still have many relatives there, so we applied and got the gig.

You may question the wisdom of someone choosing to go to the Buffalo Area in February, but since we grew up there, we figured we could handle anything Mother Nature threw at us.

I was hoping to get snowed in, but there was very little snow during our three weeks there, and that disappeared quickly as the temperatures climbed well above freezing. Steph and Laura joined us for a week and were there when it snowed. Neither has seen snow since they were wee babes.

Steph and Laura in the snow
Laura and Steph enjoying snow flurries, and Steph throwing a snowball

We stayed in a comfortable house full of eclectic art while we cared for Baer, an older terrier, and Nikki, a shy cat. We spent most of our time visiting family, including several members we hadn’t met. Because of his genealogy work, Steve connected with dozens of relatives we hadn’t known of.

One sad note was that Steve’s second oldest brother, Bob, passed away suddenly shortly after we arrived. He didn’t want a funeral, so most of the family got together at a local bar for an impromptu wake.

We were too busy visiting and eating all the yummy Buffalo food to do any sightseeing.

New on the Website

With all this exploring and family time, we only published one post:
Sinaia, Romania: A Great Addition to Your Bucharest Trip

Until Next Time

I hope you found this post interesting and inspiring. Drop a comment below and let Steve and me know if you’ve visited any of the places above and what you thought of them.

Happy traveling,
Linda

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What You Need to Know About Traveling in the Schengen Area

Hi there, fellow traveler. Are you thinking of visiting Europe for an extended period of time? If so, do you understand the Schengen Area rules? Don’t be like Steve and me when we first started traveling (more about that below). We weren’t familiar with the Schengen Area and came very close to having a giant monkey wrench thrown smack dab into the middle of our plans.

In this post, I will explain what you need to know about traveling in the Schengen Area as it applies to North American citizens. Please note that I am not an expert. You are responsible for understanding how the rules apply to you.

Our Schengen Near Miss

In January 2018, Steve and I were just months away from beginning our full-time travel journey. We had booked a two-week cruise from Port Canaveral, Florida, to Barcelona. We had three months of non-refundable Airbnb rentals lined up in Barcelona and Paris. We were raring to go.

Then I read about the Schengen Area’s 90/180-day rule. I panicked. Had we booked more nights than we were allowed? Luckily, no. We had booked 89 nights in Barcelona and Paris, so we were good. Or so we thought.

We soon realized that we had failed to consider the days our ship was in port or in the territorial waters of a Schengen country. Fortunately, nothing came of this.

We decided to take another transatlantic cruise in 2023. I researched how days on a cruise ship are treated for Schengen purposes. I couldn’t find concrete information, so we erred on the side of caution and included every day the ship was in the Schengen Area in our calculations.

What is the Schengen Area?

It is a group of 29 European countries that have agreed to allow people within its borders to travel freely between member countries. The name comes from the village of Schengen in Luxemburg, where the Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985.

For example, as a traveler, if you were to enter Spain, you could then go to any of the other 28 countries without going through border controls.

Which Countries are in the Schengen Area?

Most of the Schengen Area countries are members of the EU, but like many things in life, it is not that simple.

Of the 29 countries in the Schengen Area, 26 are EU members. Three countries, Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland, are in the Schengen Area but are not EU members.

Two countries are in the EU but are not in the Schengen Area. These are the Republic of Ireland and Cyprus.

You can find a list of member countries and a helpful map on schengenvisainfo.com.

Microstates in the Schengen Area

If that’s not complicated enough, there are six microstates (sovereign states that have tiny populations, land area, or both) within the Schengen area.

Three of these, Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City, are de facto members of the Schengen Area. You are free to enter and exit these countries from the countries that surround them. For example, when we were in Rome and wanted to visit the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica, it was as if we were entering a neighborhood of Rome rather than a different country.

Two of the microstates, Liechtenstein and Malta, are members of the Schengen Area.

The last microstate, Andorra, which is bordered by Spain and France, has border controls.

What is the 90/180-Day Rule?

There are many countries whose citizens need to apply for a visa (which includes quite a bit of paperwork and an 80 euro fee. Luckily, Canada, Mexico, and the United States do not fall into this category.

Instead, they are in a group of countries whose citizens do not need a visa to travel in the Schengen Area for short periods of time. If you are like me and prefer to see things for yourself, you can see that list here.

Visa-free visitors are allowed to stay in the Schengen Area for 90 days out of a 180-day period. The days do not need to be consecutive.

No matter what time you enter the Schengen area, it will count as one day. So, if you enter at 11:50 pm on January 1st and exit at 12:10 am on February 1st, this will count as 32 days even though you only spent 30 days and 20 minutes in the Schengen Area.

You can learn more about the Schengen area on the schengenvisainfo.com website.

What Happens if You Exceed 90 Days?

Firing squad!

Just kidding. If you exceed your allowed 90 days, you can be fined, deported, or banned from future entry into the Schengen area.

Practical Applications of the 90/180-Day Rule

For most travelers, the best thing is to keep it simple. Enter the Schengen Area, travel within it for up to 90 days, and get out. Since our near miss, we always give ourselves a cushion by booking less than 90 days, so if any issues arrive, we have wiggle room.

Should you choose to travel in and out of the Schengen Area, here are two calculators that can help you plan and keep you out of trouble.

The first one is from the European Union.

This one is tricky to use. When you enter your dates, you must start with a + for the entry date and a – for the exit date. The dates are in dd/mm/yy format without the / marks. So, an entry date of March 28, 2023, would be entered as +280323.

If you are confused about how to use this calculator, check the user’s guide, which you can find under the calculate button.

Here are results based on our two most recent stays in the Schengen Area with the assumption that we would reenter on March 18, 2024.

Calculator results for traveling in the Schengen Area

You can also use this calculator. It is more user-friendly and presents the information slightly differently but with the same results.

The Problem for Long-Term Travelers

Most travelers won’t come close to spending 90 days in Europe during one trip, so the 90/180-day rule won’t affect their plans. But for long-term travelers and nomads (like us), it is a big deal. And that big deal is getting worse as more countries join the Schengen Area, but the number of days travelers are allowed to stay doesn’t change.

That first year, after Steve and I had spent 89 days in Spain and France, we had to find countries to go to that weren’t in the Schengen area. At that time, there were 26 countries in the area. Our choices, since we wanted to stay in Europe, were the U.K. or Balkan countries. The U.K. was too expensive, so we opted for Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria.

We loved these three countries and have revisited all three. But when we went to Croatia in 2023, it was part of the Schengen Area, effective January 1, 2023. Bulgaria and Romania became part of the Schengen Area (with limitations) as of March 31, 2024. Initially, border-free travel between these two countries and other Schengen countries will apply only to entry by air or sea. This BBC article explains this in more detail.

Can You Legally Stay in the Schengen Area Longer?

Yes. There are several ways to extend your time in the Schengen Area legally.

You can apply for a long-term visa or a residence permit. Understandably, these require you to show proof of accommodation for the duration of your stay.

Steve and I had residence permits in Hungary for two years during the pandemic. We had rental agreements for the length of our permits. Signing a rental agreement wasn’t a problem since we were sheltering in place. Now that we are free to travel, we don’t want to pay rent on a place that will be empty much of the time.

There is also the cost and the hassle of applying for these permits. When we applied for our first Hungarian permit, we did it independently. It was inexpensive, but because we didn’t have representation and only spoke English, we made three visits to the immigration office and had a total wait time of 24 hours!

When it came time to renew our permit, we hired a company to represent us. This took a lot less time but cost $900.

There are several ways for North Americans to stay in European countries long-term (such as work and student visas). Still, all have strings attached that make them inappropriate for travelers looking to move frequently.

Some European Inspiration

Check out our posts on several countries in the Schengen Area:
Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Portugal, Romania, and Spain.

And here are posts about four countries that aren’t in the Schengen Area:
Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and the United Kingdom.

Until Next Time

I hope this has been helpful and informative. I also hope that you have the opportunity to experience some of what Europe has to offer despite the limitations caused by the Schengen rules.

If you have any questions or anything to add, please message me in the comments section below. As I stated at the beginning of this post, I am not an expert on visas or immigration law. This is my best effort to provide information for North American travelers unfamiliar with the Schengen Area.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured photo: a gondolier in Venice

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Wind and Whim’s 2023 Full-Time Travel Costs

It’s time to review what Steve and I spent on travel in 2023. We had a busy year that included two trips back to the U.S., a two-week trip to Athens with Stephanie and Laura, and a 15-day transatlantic cruise.

We visited 32 cities and towns and spent time on three continents. All our moving around came at a cost, and we were significantly over budget.

Keep reading to see how we spent our money, which locations were a bargain, which were budget busters, and how much over budget we were.

Our 2023 Budget

ItemBudget Per DayAnnual Budget
Daily travel expenses$150$54,700
General expenses$8$3,000
Totals$158$57,700

As you can see, our travel budget for the year is $57,700. This includes $150 per day for traveling ($54,800 for the year) and $3,000 for general expenses such as evacuation insurance, supplies, and website costs.

I was lazy in the fall of 2022 and never broke this down by category as in previous years, so there is no comparison to the budget for each category in the table below.

Our 2023 Costs by Category

We budgeted $57,700 and spent $64,600, ending the year $6,900 over budget. Our cost per day was $177.

CategoryCost
Accommodations$28,900
Food18,300
Transportation9,700
Activities3,600
Insurance1,400
Medical200
Office Related300
Supplies500
Telephone600
Website800
Other300
Total$64,600
Budget$57,700
Over budget$6,900
Cost per day$177

A FEW NOTES ABOUT THIS DATA

* All costs are in U.S. dollars
* All costs are for two people unless noted
* It only includes expenses directly related to travel

The following items are not included:
* Stateside medical insurance
* Routine prescriptions 
* Storage of our possessions in the U.S.
* Clothing (unless purchased for a specific reason like ski wear)

We were over budget because we moved around too much. We took twenty short trips (with an average stay of 6.5 nights). Many of these were side trips from places where we were staying long-term, which doubled our accommodation costs during that time.

Our style of travel is higher than backpacker level and lower than luxury level. I would classify it as three-star. If you are considering full-time or long-term travel, you can do it for much less. Check out the Ways to Travel for Less section below for helpful tips.

Our 2023 Costs by Location

Below is a table of our costs by location. I have listed the countries from the lowest to the highest cost per day and included all the cities we visited in each country.

CountryCitiesTotal CostDaysCost per Day
MoroccoTangier, Tetouan, Chefchaouen, Rabat, Marrakesh, Casablanca$4,90058$84
MontenegroPodgorica, Kotor$5,00050$100
AlbaniaTirana, Durres, Shkoder, Theth$4,20034$123
North MacedoniaSkopje$3,50028$125
RomaniaBucharest, Sinaia, Brasov$6,10040$153
CroatiaDubrovnik, Split, Zadar, Pula, Plitvice Lakes National Park, Rijeka, Opatija$10,80070$154
USA (March)Jacksonville, Marathon, Orlando$6,50028$232
Greece*Athens, Aegina$4,00014$286
ItalyRome, Venice$4,80015$320
Transatlantic CruiseRome to New York City$4,60015$307
USANew York City, Jacksonville, Asheville$6,80013$523
General Costs$3,300365$9
Totals$64,500365$177

*The cost for Greece is for four people and does not include $4,800 for accommodations and transportation paid in 2022. The total for this trip was $8,800 ($628 per day for four people, $314 per day for two people).

The least expensive countries (Morocco, Montenegro, Albania, and North Macedonia) were great places to cut costs. However, except for Skopje, North Macedonia, we found the cities in these countries limited in tourist attractions compared to the more expensive cities.

The cities in expensive countries (The U.S., Italy, and Greece) generally offer many sightseeing options, but they come at a price.

Countries like Romania and Croatia, which fall in the middle, can keep costs down while offering plenty to see and do.

Six-Year Comparison

Here’s a look back since we started traveling full-time in 2018:

YearAnnual CostDays in YearCost per Day
2018*$58,400365$160
2019$52,900365$145
2020$41,700366$114
2021$42,300365$116
2022$64,500365$177
2023$64,500365$177

*The 2018 cost is an annualized number based on what we spent for eight months of travel.

As you can see, we are all over the place, with 2020 and 2021 being low because of the pandemic. Interestingly, our average daily cost over the past six years was $148.

You can see details for all the past years here:
2018 – Europe
2019 – Latin America
2020 – Europe
2021 – Hungary
2022 – Europe, Asia, and Africa

Ways to Travel for Less

There are many ways to travel for less and still have a fantastic trip.

Cut accommodation costs – Airbnb is a good option. Other economical options include housesitting, hostels, and staying with friends and relatives.

Travel slowly – This keeps transportation costs down and allows you to take advantage of discounts on Airbnb for long-term stays. It also gives you a chance to immerse yourself in a place.

Use public transportation whenever possible – It isn’t glamorous and can sometimes be uncomfortably crowded, but in many places, it is a quick, convenient, and inexpensive way to get around.

Plan side trips wisely – Limit the number of side trips you take, consider day trips when possible, or tack a short trip on the end of a longer one to avoid paying accommodation costs at two places at once.

Consider traveling in the shoulder season or the off-season – you should see lower prices and fewer tourists.

Visit less expensive places – If you don’t want to do all-budget travel, you can balance expensive places with less costly places.

Price of Travel is a website that quantifies the cost of travel at the backpacker level for over 200 cities. Even if you plan to travel at a higher level, the listings are a good way to compare the relative costs of different destinations.

You can estimate the cost of a trip on websites like Budget Your Trip. On Budget Your Trip’s site, you can choose the city, the level of travel (budget, mid-range, or luxury), and the currency. The results include the average daily cost and the cost for one or two people for one week, two weeks, or a month.

I find it odd that when showing the cost for two people, the author doubled the cost for one person, since hotel costs for one and two people are virtually the same. Also, keep in mind that the estimates do not include the cost of traveling to and from the destination.

More 2023 Posts

Read about my favorite travel moments from 2023 in “Memorable Moments From a Year of Full-Time Travel (2023).”

You can also learn about a few of the lesser-known places we visited and loved in:
“Sinaia, Romania: A Great Addition to Your Bucharest Trip”
“What is Skopje Really Like? An Honest Review”
“Why You’ll Fall in Love with Opatija, Croatia”
“A Venetian Surprise in Shkoder, Albania”

Until Next Time

I hope you found this post informative. If there is other data you would like to see, please let me know in the comments section.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured image by Jizhidexiaohailang on Unsplash.com

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Memorable Moments From a Year of Full-Time Travel (2023)

It’s always fun to look back over our travels for the past year. As Steve and I wrap up our sixth year of full-time travel, we continue to be awed by this amazing world.

Our year was busy with visits to 32 cities and towns, so there was ample opportunity to collect memorable moments. We were in Florida twice, first in March to attend a wedding in Key West and then in December to spend Christmas with our daughters, Stephanie and Laura.

There was sad news in December when Steve’s oldest brother, Arthur, passed away after a long illness. We were on a cruise ship in the Atlantic Ocean at the time and weren’t able to attend his funeral. This was difficult for Steve, but we honored his memory by supporting St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and the fire company where he volunteered.

Below, I will share our 13 top travel experiences of 2023. I promise that this is not just a walk down memory lane. Throughout this post, you can find helpful and (hopefully) inspiring information.

All money is in U.S. dollars.

1. Exploring Marrakesh (January)

We started 2023 in Morocco, spending time in Tangier, Rabat, Tetouan, Chefchaouen (the Blue City), Marrakesh, and Casablanca. Of all these places, Marrakesh has stayed in my heart. I find this odd as I was not fond of it when we were there because of the crowds, especially in the medina (the old part of the city).

We stayed in a riad, which you can learn about here. What I remember most about our Marrakesh riad is the huge breakfast we were served every morning, along with the requisite mint tea. We were there in January, so it was cold in the morning. We ate with our jackets on while a space heater struggled to keep us warm.

So why do I remember Marrakesh so fondly? Possibly because it was so different from my other travel experiences. Making your way through the crowds in the medina while clutching your purse to your body and trying not to get hit by a motorcycle while escaping the clutches of the merchants is as real as it gets.

Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakesh
A busy square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, in Marrakesh

There is no shortage of places to see in Marrakesh. The medina has the 19th-century Bahia Palace, the 16th-century El Badi Palace ruins, and the serene 16th-century Ben Youssef Madrassa, a former Islamic school.

Outside the medina, you can visit Jardin Majorelle, a captivatingly colorful botanical garden restored by Yves Saint-Laurent and his one-time love, Pierre Berge. There is also the fun and funky Anima Garden, which features artist Andre Heller’s works among the plants.

Learn more about Marrakesh in our post “Marrakesh: Colorful, Crowded, and Just A Little Crazy.”

Eight months after our visit, Marrakesh and surrounding areas were devastated by an earthquake that claimed almost 3,000 lives. I believe these tragedies touch us more when we’ve visited a place, interacted with the residents, and experienced the culture.

We only spent four nights in Marrakesh, opting for more time in the capital of Rabat after reading about how hectic Marrakesh is. I would gladly trade our time in Rabat for more time in Marrakesh.

2. Sharing Athens With Our Daughters (April)

For two weeks in April, we shared the sights of Athens and the Island of Aegina with Steph and Laura. Steve and I had spent a month in Athens in the fall of 2022, so we were prepared to share the highlights with them.

Of course, we saw the Acropolis and the modern Acropolis Museum. We also wandered the grounds of the Ancient Agora, toured the Panathenaic Stadium, and strolled the streets looking for souvenirs.

Decorated penises for sale on the street
Prettily painted penises, a tribute to Dionysus, the god of fertility, are everywhere in Athens

We also had fish pedicures, went out for fancy drinks, and checked out the Alice in Wonderland-themed décor at Little Kook.

Four people having a fish pedicure
Laura, me, Steph, and Steve enjoying a fish pedicure (well, I’m not so sure about Steph)

This was the second time Steph and Laura joined us in our travels, the first time being in Budapest. Both trips were resounding successes and inspired me to write “9 Reasons Why Traveling with Adult Children Rocks.”

3. Walking the City Walls in Dubrovnik (April)

After Steph and Laura headed home from Athens, Steve and I headed to Croatia, where we worked our way up the Adriatic Coast. We spent time in Dubrovnik, Split, Zadar, and Pula. Even though we aren’t Game of Thrones fans, Dubrovnik was fun to explore.

One of the most popular things to do in Dubrovnik is to walk the city walls. The walls are 1.2 miles or 2 km long, and you can easily spend a few hours savoring the views. Entrance to Dubrovnik’s City Walls isn’t cheap, but it’s well worth it.

Ft. Lovrijenac, as seen from the City Walls in Dubrovnik
One of the many outstanding views from the Dubrovnik City Walls

There are many other things to see in Old Town, including the Franciscan Church and Monastery (don’t miss the wide variety of carvings on the courtyard pillars), the Dominican Monastery, the Rector’s Palace (a large Gothic building), and the Dulcic Masle Pulitika Gallery.

The War Photo Limited museum in Old Town displays powerful photos of wars and conflicts around the world. The subject matter is difficult, and the images are unsuitable for children, but I found it worthwhile.

Fort Lovrijenac stands just outside of Old Town. If forts are your thing, it’s worth a short visit.

4. Strolling Pula, Croatia’s Adriatic Coast (June)

The main tourist attraction in Pula is the 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater, also called the Pula Arena. It is one of the largest surviving amphitheaters in the world and is a must-see in Pula.

The Pula Aquarium is worthwhile, too. Over 200 species of sea life are housed in a 130-year-old fortress. As a bonus, the hallways are full of naval memorabilia.

If you stop by the 14th-century St. Francis Monastery and Church, you can get a little surprise. Dozens, if not hundreds, of tortoises live in the courtyard.

Another cool place is the House of Istria Olive Oil Museum. The exhibits were interesting, and our entrance fee included an olive oil tasting.

However, my favorite memory of Pula was spending several hours strolling the coastline. The water was as clear and blue as any Caribbean Island can offer.

Two photos from Pula, Croatia: the Adriatic Sea coast, a cuttlefish in the Pula Aquarium
The Pula coast (can you believe that blue?) and a cuttlefish at the Pula Aquarium

5. Revisiting Plitvice Lakes National Park (May & June)

Four photos from Plitvice Lakes National Park
There is no end to the beauty at Plitvice Lakes National Park

We’ve seen so many beautiful places that it’s hard to pick a favorite, but Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia is definitely on the list.

Plitvice Lakes is a series of sixteen terraced lakes. Well-kept boardwalks lead you around the lakes and waterfalls. There are three hotels and two campsites in the park.

The park is a two-hour-long bus ride from Zadar. It is also a two-hour-long ride from the capital of Zagreb. You can find tours to the park from either of these cities, but I recommend visiting for at least two days on your own as the park is easy to explore, and the hotels are decent.

We were at the park twice this year. The first time was from Zadar. It rained the entire time we were there, so we returned a month later from Pula. The weather was perfect that time.

Since Plitvice Lakes is six hours away from Pula by bus, we stopped in two Croatian towns along the way, Opatija (more on that below) and Rijeka, to break up the ride.

6. Relaxing in Opatija, Croatia (June)

We weren’t impressed with Rijeka but fell in love with the resort town of Opatija. The town lies on the Kvarner Gulf on the Istrian Peninsula.

Opatija has grand 19th-century villas and charming gardens and is walkable. The best part is the 12 km or 7-mile-long seaside promenade, the Lungomare, which passes through Opatija as it goes from the towns of Volosko to the north and Lovran to the south. It is a pleasure to walk.

A majestic building in Opatija, Croatia
One of the many majestic buildings in Opatija

Learn more about all there is to do in this peaceful town in “Why You’ll Fall in Love with Opatija, Croatia.”

7. Venturing to Venice (June)

The Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs

Venice lies west of Pula across the Adriatic Sea, and we took the opportunity to spend a few days there.

I was a bit skeptical about Venice. I knew it would be crowded as we were going during high season. It is also notoriously expensive, and I had heard that some visitors were disappointed in it. I wondered if Steve and I would be.

We were not disappointed. Seeing the places I have often read about was a dream come true. We had a tour of Doge’s Palace, which included a walk through the Bridge of Sighs. St. Mark’s Basilica was more magnificent than expected, and I enjoyed having the city almost to myself during an early morning photo shoot.

We only stayed for three nights, but it was long enough to see the highlights and get lost in the streets a few times. And if you don’t get lost, have you even been to Venice?

Steve and I agreed that despite the crowds, we had a great visit and would like to return for a longer time in the shoulder season.

8. Returning to Bucharest (July)

After Venice, we headed to Bucharest, Romania, because we had to leave the Schengen Area for 90 days. We had been to Bucharest in 2018 and had good memories of that trip. That time, we stayed far from the city center, which we could reach via the metro but cut into our sightseeing time.

This time, we stayed in the city center so we could walk to most of the tourist attractions and many stores. Even though it was hot, we managed to see quite a bit.

If you love books and beauty (and who doesn’t?), you can’t go wrong with a visit to Carturesti Carusel. This is one of several Carturesti stores, and it is a vision in white.

Inside the Carturesti Carusel bookstore
The glorious Carturesti Carusel

We came across another store in this chain: Carturesti Verona. The vibe is entirely different but no less charming.

We spent time at well-known tourist attractions like the Palace of Parliament (the heaviest building in the world), the Stavropoleos Monastery, and the National Museum of Art.

The Palace of Parliament, the Stavropoleos Monastery, and the grand staircase at the National Museum of Art
The Palace of Parliament, the Stavropoleos Monastery, and the grand staircase at the National Museum of Art

The National Museum of Art is in the former Royal Palace. It has two art galleries. One features Romanian art, and the other features European art. In between the two is the Throne Hall, where you can get a glimpse of the elegance of the palace. I fell in love with the yellow marble used in the halls and stairway of the Throne Hall.

We also made several trips to Therme Bucuresti, a wellness center that combines thermal and mineral pools, saunas, waterslides, and a botanical garden in a gorgeous environment. Check out our post, “Therme Bucuresti: The Most Beautiful and Relaxing Place in Bucharest,” to learn about this must-visit place.

Not far from Therme is an excellent auto museum called the Tiriac Collection, where you can see over 200 vehicles from 1899 to the present. The collection is owned by Romanian businessman and former athlete Ion Tiriac.

9. Finally Seeing Sinaia (July)

After Bucharest, we checked out the Romanian town of Sinaia. It is in the Bucegi Mountains and is just 86 miles or 140 km north of Bucharest. It is most famous for being the home of Peles Castle.

Peles Castle
Peles Castle

Steve and I had seen a little of the town in 2018 when we took a bus tour to Peles Castle, and we wanted to see more. There is enough to keep you busy for several days, and the cooler mountain climate was a welcome relief after the heat in Bucharest.

Beside Peles Castle, we toured two smaller castles, Pelisor Castle and Stirby Castle. The town center is worth exploring, too, as is the Sinaia Monastery. Learn more about Sinaia in this post.

10. Soaking Up the Kitsch in Skopje (August)

We spent most of August in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. It is one of the most unique places we’ve been.

Due to the Skopje 2014 Project, many buildings have a neoclassic façade, and there are over one hundred statues in the city. Some statues are of historical figures, while others are more lighthearted.

Steve and I were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the museums, including the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia, The Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia, and the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Independence.

The Archaeological Museum and the Bridge of Civilization in Skopje
The Archaeological Museum and the Bridge of Civilization in Skopje

We chose Skopje because it was an inexpensive place outside of the Schengen Area. We weren’t sure what to expect but relished its kitschy vibe.

Learn more about Skopje in “What is Skopje Really Like? An Honest Review” and “What You Need to Know When Visiting Skopje, North Macedonia.”

11. Discovering Rome (November)

Our 2023 plans included a Transatlantic cruise from Rome to New York City so we could spend Christmas in Jacksonville, Florida, with our daughters. The ship left from Civitavecchia, a town close to Rome, so we spent the week before the cruise in the Eternal City.

Our week was full of activity. We had fantastic tours of the Colosseum, the Vatican Museums, and St. Peter’s Basilica. We saw Colonna Palace, a private palace full of incredible art. We were awed by the chapels in the Capuchin Crypt, where the bones of Capuchin friars have been arranged to make patterns on the walls and ceiling. Skeletons and mummified remains, clothed in the Capuchin habit, are placed throughout.

Steve in front of the Colosseum
Steve in front of the Colosseum

12. Cruising Across the Atlantic (December)

Fifteen days of relaxation featuring fabulous food and world-class entertainment? Sign me up. In 2018, Steve and I started our full-time travel journey by sailing from Florida to Barcelona on the Norwegian Epic. We loved it. This time, we returned to the U.S. on the Norwegian Gem.

During port stops, we got to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa (once is enough), get acquainted with Marseille sufficiently to know we won’t go back, and tour Casa Batllo in Barcelona (the one place we missed when we were there in 2018).

3 photos from a Transatlantic cruise: the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Norwegian Gem, contestants in a shipboard game
The Leaning Tower of Pisa, our ship, Steve (black shirt, tan pants) participating in a game

For me, the best part of cruising is not the ports; it’s the shipboard life. From the food to the daytime activities to the evening entertainment, it is relaxing but never boring.

13. Hitting the Highlights in Manhattan (December)

Our ship docked in Manhattan a few days before Christmas. Steve and I spent four nights there before heading to Florida.

We loved our time in New York. It was clean, and we felt safe. Even though it’s a busy city, we had more elbow room than in many European cities since Americans value their personal space.

Despite the winter chill, we packed a lot into our short stay. First on the list was the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Frankly, I was not impressed with the design of the two fountains but loved that the names of all those who lost their lives that day are displayed. I thought the museum’s displays were well done.

The 9/11 Memorial
One of the 9/11 memorials on a winter day

We took a long walk through Central Park (again, very clean and safe) and saw the Blue Man Group. We also braved the crowds and shared a $26 brisket sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen. And, of course, we had to check out the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center.

I was disappointed with the tree and the city’s decorations. They didn’t come close to what we saw during our two Christmases in Budapest.

On our last day in the city, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We only spent a few hours there, but both loved what we saw. We agreed we must go back and visit over several days to experience all this epic museum has to offer.

Until Next Time

I hope you enjoyed reading about our top thirteen travel experiences for 2023. Hopefully, you got some inspiration for your future travels. As always, Steve and I love hearing from our readers, so feel free to drop a comment in the comment section below.

Happy traveling,
Linda

The featured photo is of a small harbor in Dubrovnik’s Old Town.

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Sinaia, Romania: A Great Addition to Your Bucharest Trip

If you’re fortunate enough to visit Bucharest, Romania, you will have much to explore and enjoy. Among the many things to see in Bucharest, you can tour the Palace of Parliament, one of the largest buildings in the world, peruse the stunningly beautiful Carturesti Carusel bookstore, and get pampered at Therme Bucuresti, an over-the-top relaxation center.

After you’ve seen what this amazing city has to offer, you may want to explore more of Romania.

Sinaia, Romania is a great choice. This town in the Bucegi Mountains is just 86 miles (140 km) north of Bucharest. It is most famous for being the home of Peles Castle, but it has so much more to offer.

You can see some of the highlights of Sinaia during a day trip, but I believe it deserves a longer stay.

Read on to discover all the things to do in and near Sinaia.

All money is in U.S. dollars.

A Little Background

Steve and I spent four weeks in Bucharest in the summer of 2018. While there, we took a group tour to Peles Castle and Bran Castle. During the bus ride, we drove through the center of Sinaia. We were both impressed with how picturesque it was, so when we found ourselves back in Bucharest in the summer of 2023, we took the opportunity to spend some time in Sinaia.

We spent five nights at the Hotel Boutique Vila LaKastel in Sinaia. It was pleasant enough, but we were disappointed with the breakfast. Not only didn’t we like the food, but they appeared to be rationing coffee. Our cups were only half filled, and we repeatedly had to ask for more. Because of this, we ate four breakfasts across the street at the Hotel Marami. They had a simple buffet and all the coffee we could drink for $9 per person.

Getting There and Getting Around

Getting to Sinaia from Bucharest

Sinaia is less than a two-hour drive from Bucharest. If you prefer public transportation, a train trip from Bucuresti Nord to Sinaia on CFR Calatori takes as little as 1.5 hours.

The Sinaia, Romania train station
The Sinaia train station

The train station is very close to the center of town. You can walk to your accommodations if you’re staying in town and don’t mind some stairs. You can also get a taxi or Uber.

We stayed near Peles Castle. You can walk to this area from the town center in about 20 minutes, and we did so several times. However, I wouldn’t recommend you do so with luggage. Sinaia is a mountain town, so there are a lot of inclines.

Getting Around Sinaia

A lot of Sinaia is walkable. One exception is the Telegondola station (more on that below), which is a 50-minute uphill walk from the town center. It is easy to get there by bus.

You can buy bus tickets at machines at the bus stops in town. If you’re boarding a bus elsewhere, you can get a ticket from the driver. Uber is available, and taxis are plentiful.

Things To Do in Sinaia

Peles Castle

The exterior of Peles Castle
Peles Castle in all its glory

Peles Castle is the main attraction in Sinaia. The castle was commissioned by Romania’s first king, Carol I, and inaugurated in 1883. The royal family used it as a hunting preserve and summer retreat until 1947, when King Michael I was forced to abdicate, and the royal properties were seized by the Communist government.

Carol I was of German heritage, which is reflected in the architecture. To call the castle ornate would be an understatement.

Fun Fact – Peles Castle was the first European castle to have electricity. There is a retractable glass ceiling and many other modern conveniences. You can learn more about them here.

The music room in Peles Castle
The music room

You can choose to see the first floor, the first and second floors, or all three floors. As of this writing, the cost is $11, $22, and $33, respectively. Expect to spend a few hours there.

The castle is closed on Monday and Tuesday, so those are great days to get photos on the patio without the crowds.

Click here for information on visiting Peles Castle and Pelisor Castle.

Pelisor Castle

Pelisor Castle exterior
The front of Pelisor Castle

I think of Pelisor Castle as Peles Castle’s little brother. It is just a four-minute walk between the two.

This castle was commissioned by King Carol I as the home for his nephew, Ferdinand I, and his wife, Marie. It was completed in 1902.

The exterior is in the German Neo-Renaissance style, like Peles Castle. However, the interior is filled with Art Nouveau elements. Most of the rooms are bland compared to the opulence of Peles Castle, but the Golden Room is a beautiful exception. The walls and ceiling have an intricate thistle design and are covered in 24-carat gold leaf.

The Golden Room in Pelisor Castle
The Golden Room

Ferdinand I became king upon Carol I’s death in 1914, as King Carol I did not have a male heir. He and his wife, Elisabeth, only had one child, a girl named Maria, who died from scarlet fever at the age of four.

Since this castle is much smaller than Peles, you only need about an hour here.

Stirbey Castle

Stirbey Castle is another 19th-century castle in Sinaia. It differs from the above two in that it is in the center of town and is much smaller. The castle was built by Princess Alina Stirbey, a Romanian noble, and her husband, General Emanuel Florescu, as a summer home.

Two pictures of Stirbey Castle
A drawing of the castle with Princess Alina and a current photo of the same view

The home is now a museum and a hotel with a cafe. In January 2024, the hotel rooms started at $60 per night. Get more information here.

It cost us $3.50 each to tour the museum. While not a must-see, it was interesting.

Dimitrie Ghica Park and the Town Center

The Dimitrie Ghica Park is in the center of town and was the area that made Steve and I want to see more of Sinaia when we drove through it in 2018.

The park has a large fountain and a pavilion. There are paved walkways and plenty of benches. The park is surrounded by impressive 19th and 20th-century buildings such as the Sinaia Casino (currently a conference center) and the Caraiman Hotel.

The Caraiman Hotel
The Caraiman Hotel as seen from Dimitrie Ghica Park

Bulevardul Carol I runs along one side of the park, then continues to the south. There are many restaurants, shops, and hotels on the stretch south of the park, including our favorite restaurant, Restaurant Wood, at Bulevardul Carol I 8.

Sinaia Monastery

The Sinaia Monastery is a ten-minute walk from Dimitrie Ghica Park. It includes two churches, the Old Church and the New Church.

The Old Church is over 300 years old. It is small, but the 17th-century Byzantine paintings are worth seeing. The New Church dates back to the mid-1800s.

The ceiling in the Old Church at the Sinaia Monastery
Look at the detail on the ceiling of the Old Church

The monastery served as a royal summer residence for King Carol I from his coronation in 1866 until the inauguration of Peles Castle 17 years later.

It is free to explore the grounds and the two churches. There may be a small fee to enter the museum. Learn more about it here.

Telegondola Sinaia

If you want some time in nature, the Telegondola is your ticket. We took the gondola to the top (6,560 feet or 2,000 meters). Even though it was pricy at $21 each round trip, it was worth it for the views.

Two views at the top of the Telegondola
At 2,000 meters – I’m not sure why there’s an abandoned phone booth

You can go to 1,400 meters or 2,000 meters. If you go to the top, you will change cars at 1,400 meters. Learn more here and in this article from The Balkans and Beyond.

Don’t forget a sweater or jacket (like I did). It was cool at 2,000 meters, even in the summer.

Hike and Ski

Sinaia and the land around it is so beautiful, you’ll want to spend every moment possible outside. One great way to do this is to hike some of the Sinaia trails. Here are some of the best trails to try from Wikiloc.

There is also a ski resort in Sinaia, but it doesn’t have a very good rating. A word of warning: if you get hurt, the health care may not be the best. I don’t have experience with health care in Romania, but Steve’s experience with health care in Bulgaria was abysmal.

Things To Do Near Sinaia

Bran Castle

The courtyard at Bran Castle
The courtyard at the castle

In less than one hour, you can drive from Sinaia to Bran Castle. You can also take a bus or train from Sinaia to Brasov and then get a bus to the castle.

Although it is known as Dracula’s Castle, this is a myth. Even so, it has undoubtedly brought many visitors to the castle. Learn the truth here.

We’ve been to the castle twice, both times in the summer, and it was packed. Since our first visit was part of a tour, we didn’t get to explore the grounds or the town. We had hoped to remedy that on our second visit, but that was not to be.

As we ended our tour of the inside of the castle and were ready to walk the grounds, heavy rains came down. We waited it out in the restaurant, hoping it would stop. It did lighten up a little, but not enough for us to walk around outdoors, so we returned to our hotel.

Getting directions to the castle was challenging. The desk clerk directed us to the central bus station (which is connected to the train station where we had arrived in Brasov). Once there, we couldn’t find any information on buses to Bran. We asked around, to no avail, although one man offered to drive us but wanted too much money.

Then I saw a line of people boarding a bus, so I asked them if they were going to Bran Castle. They weren’t, but the driver told us to get on, free of charge, as the bus was going to Autogara 2, where we could get a bus to the castle.

See the castle’s website to plan your visit and learn more about this fabled place.

We spent two nights at the Hotel Belvedere in Brasov. It was a nice hotel, but the best part was the restaurant, Restaurant Belvedere. We had two fabulous dinners there and highly recommend it.

Filet mignon and vegetable dinner
The food was as good as it looks and came with a small complimentary appetizer

Cantacuzino Castle

If you’re a fan of the delightfully quirky television show Wednesday, here’s your chance to see Nevermore Academy (or at least the building that was used for the exterior shots).

Don’t be surprised if the building looks different than on the show. Special effects and computer-generated imagery were used to make adjustments, especially to the roof line.

Cantacuzino Castle was the summer home of aristocrat and politician Prince Gheorghe Grigore Cantacuzino. It took ten years to build and was completed in 1911. Sadly, the prince died there two years later.

The castle is in the nearby town of Busteni. It is a short drive from Sinaia. You can also go by train. The trip will take about 30 minutes, with the last 18 minutes walking from the Busteni train station to the castle.

At the castle, you can tour the inside, check out the art gallery, stroll the grounds, or a combination of these. Expect to spend one to two hours there. Learn more at the castle’s website.

We didn’t get to Cantacuzino Castle. We’d planned to go on our last day in Sinaia, but it was raining. Since we weren’t staying near the train station, we would have had to take a bus there and then get on the train. This wouldn’t usually stop us, but that day, the bus and train schedules weren’t coordinated, so we gave it a pass.

You can read more about the castle and how it was used in the TV show in this Architectural Digest article.

Ialomita Cave and Monastery

If you want to venture a little further from Sinaia, you can take the hour-long drive to Ialomita Cave and Monastery in Moroeni. It may be challenging to get there using public transportation.

Once there, you can explore a large cave with a monastery at its entrance. We didn’t do this, but it is highly rated on Trip Advisor and Google Reviews.

You can learn more about Ialomita in the article from Calling For The Wild.

Our Costs

In Sinaia

Dates: July 27, 2023 – August 1, 2023
Number of nights: 5
Total cost for two people: $923
Cost per night: $184

Biggest costs: Accommodations: $482
Dining: 264
Activities: 90

In Brasov

Dates: August 1, 2023 – August 3, 2023
Number of nights: 2
Total cost for two people: $428
Cost per night: $214

Biggest costs: Accommodations: $235
Dining: 134

Final Thoughts

Sinaia was as magical as we had expected. It didn’t hurt that our 2023 trip gave us a break from the heat of Bucharest, either.

You can read about our month in Bucharest and Sinaia in our July 2023 update.

I would recommend Sinaia and the surrounding area to anyone who loves nature and history.

Until Next Time

I hope you enjoyed this article about Sinaia. Steve and I would love to hear your thoughts. If you’ve been lucky enough to see Sinaia, please share your experiences and impressions with us.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Originally published on February 4, 2024

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Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: November 2023

Hi there! Can you believe 2023 is almost over? I hope you are enjoying this festive time of year and looking forward to memorable holiday celebrations. Steve and I are anticipating Christmas with our daughters in Jacksonville, Florida.

November was a most unusual month for us. We spent the first three weeks in Kotor, Montenegro, and the last week in Rome. Our time in Kotor was pretty laid back, in large part due to the weather. However, our week in Rome kicked our butts as we were determined to see as much of the city as possible in one week.

Here are the highlights, one low point, and details of what we did in November.

Highlights

Exploring Rome

Hands down, seeing the famous sights of Rome was the best part of our month. We had several tours, which helped us understand more about the city. My knowledge of Roman history was pretty weak before we arrived.

Our best tour included an hour and a half at the Colosseum. I was surprised to learn that in addition to being used for entertainment purposes (i.e., blood sports), at one time, it was used for housing and that the games took place over many days, meaning daily life in Rome was put on hold. At mid-day, executions would take place, right about the time the spectators were eating lunch. And when a gladiator fell, the emperor had the final say on whether or not he was killed.

The Kotor Kitties

Kotor gives Istanbul a run for its money with its love of cats. Old Town is teeming with free-range cats. Every cat we saw was healthy-looking, and most were friendly. There is a fountain in Old Town that is a gathering place for many of the cats. Nearby, there is a row of several tiny cat houses. A local woman has been feeding the cats for thirty years.

You can help keep the Kotor Kitties healthy and prevent overpopulation by donating to the Kotor Kitties charity.

Photos of four cats
Four of the beautiful Kotor Kitties

Our Own Kotor Kitty

Not long after we arrived at our Airbnb, we had a visitor: a small, sweet black and white cat. We gave her lots of love and she came to see us several times a day. I wish we could have brought her inside, especially in the bad weather, but we didn’t since it wasn’t our apartment.

A black and white cat looking in a window
Our kitty friend

My Favorite Old Town

Kotor’s Old Town is my favorite old town so far. I liked it even better than Dubrovnik’s. Kotor’s Old Town has narrow, winding streets compared to Dubrovnik’s wider ones. In Kotor, it felt as if I’d stepped back in time. An added plus is that the streets are too narrow for motor vehicles. I also found Kotor’s Old Town less commercial than Dubrovnik’s, although it was no less crowded on days when cruise ships were in port.

Old Town Kotor street
A street in Old Town on a Sunday morning

Low Point

Bad Weather in Kotor

The weather in Kotor flip-flopped throughout our stay. Half the time, we had sunny, cool weather that was perfect for hiking. The other half was filled with heavy rain and high winds. The odd thing was that the good and bad days alternated throughout our stay.

We put our downtime to good use, working on our plans for the next four months.

Steve continued work on his genealogy project, and I worked hard to finish my website redesign, only to get a fatal error the day I hoped to go live.

What We Did in Rome

Fought the Crowds at the Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain
The Trevi Fountain with crowds

We stopped by this famed fountain, and each of us tossed in a coin to ensure we would return to Rome.

If you visit Rome, don’t miss this beauty. But beware, it is always crowded.

Toured the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica

The Vatican Museums were at the top of my list of things to see in Rome, and I was not disappointed. We opted for a tour that included the museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica.

I was surprised by the size of the Sistine Chapel. It is much smaller than I expected, and photos were not allowed. St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world, made up for that. Both the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s are places we hope to see again.

Michelangelo’s Pieta
Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica

Soaked in the Beauty of the Colonna Palace

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I scheduled a visit to the Colonna Palace since it isn’t one of the most well-known attractions. It is an understatement to say Steve and I were blown away. This private palace, built by the Colonna family in the 14th century, is full of amazing artwork and architecture. The Colonna family still inhabits the palace today.

Two photos of the Colonna Palace
Inside the Colonna Palace and in the garden

Explored the Capuchin Crypt and Museum

This place wins the prize for the most unusual thing we saw in Rome. The Roman Catholic church Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini was just a two-minute walk from our hotel. The museum and crypt are connected to the church.

We went there specifically to see the crypt, but the ticket included the museum, and you have to go through it to get to the crypt. The museum was interesting, even for the non-religious, but the highlight was the crypt.

When you enter the crypt, your mind can go two ways: either horror movie mode or THIS IS SO COOL mode. We chose the latter.

The bones of 3,600 Capuchin friars have been arranged to make patterns on the walls and ceiling. Skeletons and mummified remains, clothed in the Capuchin habit, are placed throughout. There are five chapels, and each has a name, including the Crypt of the Pelvises.

Inside the Capuchin Crypt, Rome
Inside the Capuchin Crypt, Rome (photo by Wellcome Images on commons.wikimedia.org license CC BY 4.0 DEED

The Capuchins are an order of Franciscan friars who strive to live like St. Francis of Assisi. Capuchin friars dedicate their lives to prayer and service to the poor.

Photos aren’t allowed in the museum or the crypt, but here is one from Wellcome Images:

Visited the Catacombs of St. Callixtus

After visiting the Capuchin Crypt, we toured the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. This was the official burial place for about half a million Roman Christians in the 3rd century A.D.

You can only enter the catacombs with a guide, and photos aren’t allowed. Our tour was only 45 minutes long, during which we walked through a small portion of the 12.4 miles or 20 km of the tunnels. We saw a few frescos and many niches where bodies had been buried. After the novelty of the Capuchin Crypts, these catacombs were a disappointment.

What We Did in Kotor

Hiked to Ft. Vrmac

We had a break in the rain and took the opportunity to zig-zag our way up the 2,575-foot or 785-meter-high Vrmac Mountain.

It took us two and a half hours to reach the top and two hours to go back down. Of course, we made frequent stops to appreciate the view of Kotor Bay and take photos.

A man hiking along a cliff
Steve hiking the Vrmac Mountain

This hike is easy to moderate. I was a bit uneasy on the trail because much of it is along the edge, and it is rocky. I spent far too much time wondering how badly we’d be injured if we fell over the edge.

We safely reached the top and saw the underwhelming Ft. Vrmac, many pot-bellied pigs, and one friendly white cat.

That night, it was early to bed, but only after downing a few painkillers.

Checked Out the Maritime Museum

Steve and I decided to see the Maritime Museum while waiting for better weather. It is big enough to have a comprehensive variety of artifacts, yet not so large as to be overwhelming.

The museum is in a Baroque palace that was once the home of the noble Grgurina family.

As the name implies, the museum’s primary focus is on ships and maritime life. There are many well-done model ships, along with maps, paintings, and photos of a bygone era. There is also a room displaying weapons from the 17th and 18th centuries. Two rooms have been recreated with period furniture, and there are countless examples of items used in daily life (primarily from the 18th and early 19th centuries).

Four boys in costumes
Four of the young boys chosen as Little Admirals of the Boka Navy Kotor in the 1930s

Most of the specimens had English translations but they did not include all the details that the Montenegrin descriptions did (hint: you can use the Serbian translation on Google Translate to translate Montenegrin).

An audio guide is available, but neither Steve nor I found it helpful as it focused heavily on personalities we never heard of. We were allowed to take photos. The entry fee of 6 euro was reasonable.

This museum is okay if you’re looking for a short activity, but don’t feel bad if you miss it.

Visited St. Tryphon’s Cathedral

This Romanesque cathedral was consecrated in 1166. It was severely damaged by two earthquakes, one in 1667 and one in 1979. It has since been restored.

We went there to see the Sacral Art Museum, but I was more intrigued by the interior architecture.

Inside St. Tryphon’s Cathedral, Kotor
Inside St. Tryphon’s Cathedral, Kotor

Saw a Bit of Tivat

We had a break in the rain, so we decided to see the nearby town of Tivat. It was easy to reach Tivat via a fifteen-minute bus ride. Tivat does not have an old town because the town is too young, having been founded in the 14th century. Kotor, with its remarkable old town, was founded in the 5th century BC!

Tivat may not have an old town, but it does have a town center. Tivat’s center is a twenty-minute walk from the bus station. Walking along the main road to the center, we commented on how unattractive the town was.

Once we reached the center, we decided to head to the bay and look for a restaurant for lunch. We quickly found one and had a quick pizza lunch. At this point, we weren’t impressed with Tivat. Then, we strolled along the waterfront and discovered the area of Porto Montenegro. This upscale area has a large marina, shops, restaurants, and lovely buildings.

We walked around, admiring the modern beauty we had been missing, and agreed that this area deserves another visit.

A man in front of the Porto Montenegro sign
Steve enjoying the elegance of Porto Montenegro

Hiked the City Walls to Kotor Fortress

We were apprehensive about this hike because we had it confused with the Ladder of Kotor hike. We skipped the Ladder of Kotor hike after we learned our limits during our hike in Theth, Albania, in October (which I wrote about in our October update).

On the City Walls hike, you climb up 1,350 steps to reach the Medieval Kotor Fortress (also known as St. John’s Fortress, San Giovanni Fortress, St. John’s Castle, and Castel St. John). The fortress sits 850 feet or 260 meters above sea level and has great views of Old Town and the Bay of Kotor.

Hiking Kotor’s City Walls
A view of the bay from Kotor’s City Walls and Steve and me at the Kotor Fortress

Once at the fortress, you are free to explore the ruins.

We were charged 15 euro per person to hike the City Walls.

Here is helpful information about climbing the city walls from Wanderful Journeys Travel.

If you are more adventurous, check out the details for the Ladder of Kotor hike from Earth Trekkers.

A Bad Airbnb Review (Boo Hoo)

In our last two monthly updates, I talked about the issues we had with our Podgorica Airbnb and how we decided that we would no longer clean or fix things that hosts missed. Our host in Podgorica didn’t like being held accountable and left a negative review. This is only our second less-than-glowing review out of 46 reviews.

Airbnb allows you to reply to a review, but they don’t make it easy. You need to log in on a desktop computer. Really? In this day and age? Get it together, Airbnb.

Fortunately, our Kotor Airbnb was much better. The only issue was that we didn’t have use of the washer/dryer for the first week, but our host offered to pay for us to have our laundry done in the meantime.

Our Take on Kotor

Kotor Bay and the surrounding mountains are incredible. Unfortunately, except for the Porto Montenegro area of Tivat, everything else we saw was uninspiring. If the weather had been better, we would have seen other nearby towns and attractions.

Shopping was disappointing as well. There are three decent-size supermarkets a few minutes’ walk from Old Town, as well as others in the city. For anything else, like clothing, office supplies, or household items, the selection was the most limited we’ve seen in any town.

See more of Kotor in our Kotor, Montenegro Photo Gallery.

Our Take on Rome

After having been in the Balkans for the last several months, it was great to return to a world-class city. We are happiest in places with many attractions, which you don’t get in the Balkans, even in the capitals.

The downside of Rome was the cost. We’ve enjoyed low prices for so long that we had extreme sticker shock. It may seem normal to people in the U.S. and Western Europe, but we can’t get over restaurants charging $13 (12 euro) for a bowl of soup.

After a two-week cruise from Rome to New York City, we will spend four days in New York City. No doubt we will continue to be shocked by high prices.

Until Next Time

That’s it for our November update. Steve and I wish you joy, love, and peace this holiday season.

Happy traveling,
Linda

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Kotor, Montenegro Photo Gallery

Here are our favorite photos from our November 2023 trip to Kotor, Montenegro. There are also two photos from the nearby town of Tivat.

Most of the photos were taken in Kotor’s Old Town, my favorite old town to date. As you can see, there were few people as it was off-season, and the weather was often bad during our stay.

To see the images in a slideshow with captions, press any image.

Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: October 2023

Hi there, and happy November. Steve and I spent most of October in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and then moved on to Kotor, Montenegro, at the end of the month. We had a low-key month in Podgorica, but Kotor should be busier since there is more to do.

Even though we weren’t as active in October as usual, that’s okay. We will be busy from late November through January. Here is our monthly update with the highlights, the low points, and a summary of what we did in October.

Highlights

A Side Trip Back to Albania

We took a side trip back to Albania, the country where we spent most of September. We spent three nights in Shkoder, where we discovered a factory that makes Venetian-style carnival masks, explored castle ruins, visited the Marubi National Museum of Photography, and saw a few churches.

Our side trip had its own side trip. From Shkoder, we went to the village of Theth in the Albanian Alps for two nights. We spent most of our full day there on a challenging mountain hike.

Then we returned to Shkoder for one last night, where we ate at two of our favorite restaurants, Bar Restaurant Elita and Fisi Restaurant, and relaxed at our hotel.

A hotel courtyard
The courtyard at Hotel Treva in Shkoder

A Great Neighborhood in Podgorica

Our Airbnb was in a new part of town full of apartment buildings, shops, and a mall just a five-minute walk away, but the best part was the nearby restaurants.

One of our favorites was Spago, which had terrific pulled pork sandwiches. We had fun with our waiter, who was quite taken with Hedgemeister.

We also loved Zheng He, a high-end Chinese restaurant. The best Chinese food we’ve ever had was in Quito, Ecuador. The food at Zheng He was a close second.

These websites are in Montenegrin, but the menus have English translations.

Chinese food
Delectable Chinese food at Zheng He

A Killer Steak Dinner

I’m a big fan of filet mignon, which isn’t easy to find as we travel. So, when I found a restaurant in Podgorica called The Living Room, and they had filet mignon on the menu, I was all over that. My filet was perfect, which is a miracle because they tend to overcook meat in Balkan countries (at least for our taste).

Steve ordered a T-bone steak, which was sold by weight. We were surprised when we got the bill and his steak cost 56 euro ($59). But he loved it, and it was one of the best meals we’ve had in a long time.

Ease of Filling Prescriptions

It seems that I have reached the age where filling prescriptions makes the highlights list, lol.

In last month’s update, I discussed the challenges of filling prescriptions in Albania. It was much easier in Montenegro. I was able to use the prescription from an Albanian doctor to buy my medication at an affordable price. The ease of keeping up with prescriptions while on the road ranges from incredibly simple to downright frustrating.

Low Points

More Airbnb Issues

In last month’s update, I also wrote about our issues with our Podgorica Airbnb, including unusable cooking supplies and a poor cleaning job. Our host addressed these. But the fun didn’t stop there. One of the sliding closet doors got progressively harder to move and needed to be adjusted. Then, the water in the building was turned off for a brief time. When it came back on, we had a leak under the bathroom sink. Each of these issues meant waiting for a repair person to arrive and fix it.

We realize things will go wrong, but this Airbnb had more than its share. It’s funny how many more problems we seem to have in newer buildings than in old ones.

What We Did

Toured the Venice Art Mask Factory in Shkoder

Who would have thought that some carnival masks you see in Venice shops are made in a little city in Albania?

We saw a wide variety of masks and learned how they are made. You can read about this interesting attraction in “A Venetian Surprise in Shkoder, Albania.”

Explored the Rozafa Castle in Shkoder

Steve and I spent several hours at the Rozafa Castle ruins, where visitors can wander at will. The oldest parts of the limestone and brick castle date back to the 4th or 3rd century BC (according to Wikipedia).

The church ruins at Rozafa Castle
Ruins of a 13th-century church at Rozafa Castle

There is a heartbreaking legend about the castle that you can read about here.

Hiked the Albanian Alps

And what a hike it was. We got much more than we bargained for on this hours-long trek along steep, rocky trails and across rivers and a small waterfall.

A man hiking on a mountain
Steve on the trail

We vowed to be more careful about which trails we commit to, but we can’t deny how much we loved the scenery along the way.

A trail in the Albanian Alps
On the trail

Visited the Dajbabe Monastery

The Dajbabe Monastery is a 126-year-old Serbian Orthodox monastery on the outskirts of Podgorica. Its church and several shrines are in a cave. The grounds are covered with dozens of olive trees.

The altar in the Dajbabe Monastery
The Dajbabe Monastery altar

The complex was beautiful and peaceful, but the best part was the cat who greeted us at the entrance and enjoyed all the attention we gave her.

Two photos of a black and white cat
The monastery cat greeting me and holding still long enough for a photo

Strolled the Older Areas of Podgorica

We took several walks into the old parts of the city, including Old Town and Gorica Park. Neither of these wowed us. The highlights of Old Town consist of a clock tower and two traditional restaurants. Gorica Park is a large park whose claim to fame appears to be its adventure course.

We came across the charming Church of St. George near Gorica Park. You can see the ropes used to ring the bells hanging on the front of the church.

The Church of St. George
The Church of St. George

We enjoyed the area around the Old Ribnica River Bridge. The bridge was built in Roman times and reconstructed by the Ottomans in the 18th century.

The Ribnica River was dry when we were there, but that didn’t detract from the charm of the bridge or the small park surrounding it.

The Ribnica River Bridge
The Ribnica River Bridge

Marveled at the Orthodox Temple of Christ’s Resurrection

This is a must-see in Podgorica. We’ve seen a lot of churches, and this one still impressed us. The outside has many reliefs. Inside, the walls and ceiling are covered with colorful paintings.

Photos aren’t allowed inside the temple, and we believe in respecting that request. This time, we were bad, and both snuck a photo because it was so incredible.

Three photos of the Orthodox Temple of Christ's Resurrection
Clockwise from upper left: the front of the temple, Steve’s clandestine photo of the interior, and a relief of Noah’s Ark on the exterior of the temple

On the Website

We published two new posts in October: the aforementioned “A Venetian Surprise in Shkoder, Albania” and “Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: September 2023.”

We also published two photo galleries: one for Skopje and one for Tirana. This is a new addition to the website. Please let me know what you think of the galleries.

Where to Next?

We will spend most of November in Kotor, Montenegro, and then head to Rome for eight nights at the end of the month.

In early December, we will board the Norwegian Gem and spend fifteen nights cruising from Rome to New York City.

Just before Christmas, we will have a short stay in New York City. Steve has been there many times, but I have only been there once. That was forty-four years ago on our honeymoon. I can’t wait to see the city decked out for Christmas. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see snow.

Then, we will travel to Jacksonville on December 23rd to celebrate Christmas with our daughters, Steph and Laura. We will be in Jacksonville through January 20th. As with every trip back to the U.S., we will spend time with family and friends, see doctors, and stock up on supplies. This trip promises to be less hectic than previous ones since we took care of many things on our visit last March.

Do you have travel plans for the coming holidays? If so, Steve and I would love to hear about them in the comments section below.

Until Next Time

That’s it for our October update. Steve and I wish you an enjoyable autumn and, for those of you in the U.S., a Happy Thanksgiving.

Happy traveling,
Linda

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What You Need to Know When Visiting Tirana, Albania

What’s it like to visit Tirana, the capital of Albania?

Except for the lack of street addresses and lackadaisical bus schedules, it was similar to visiting any other city.

Before traveling to Tirana, I knew nothing about the city or the country. In September 2023, Steve and I stayed there for four weeks. You can read about that in “Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: September 2023.”

Here are the practical things you need to know when visiting Tirana. There is a lot of information, but you can use the table of contents to find the information you need quickly.

All money is in U.S. dollars unless otherwise stated

About Tirana

1. Tirana is the capital of Albania.

2. About 500,000 people live in Tirana.

3. The same number of people live in Skopje, North Macedonia, yet when we were in Skopje in August 2023, the city was uncrowded. In contrast, Tirana was crowded.

4. Tirana is growing by 30,000 people annually, and new buildings are popping up everywhere.

Two highrise buildings
Just two of the many modern buildings in Tirana

5. Skanderbeg Square is a large square in the city’s center. It honors a 15th-century nobleman who rebelled against the Ottomans.

6. The Lana River runs through the city, but don’t rush to see it. At least when we were there, it was not much more than a little creek.

The Lana River
The Lana River in September

About Albania

7. 2.8 million people live in Albania.

8. Albania is a Balkan country on the Adriatic Sea.

9. From 1946 to 1991, it was under communist rule.

10. Albania became a republic after the fall of communism in 1991.

11. The country’s official name is the Republic of Albania.

12. Unlike its neighbors, North Macedonia and Montenegro, Albania was never part of Yugoslavia.

13. You can learn about Albania’s historical periods in this article by Adventure Unbound.

Culture

14. The most unusual thing about Tirana was the lack of street addresses. Our Airbnb listing referenced the GPS coordinates instead. We used the name of the hotel across the street from our Airbnb when dealing with taxis and using map apps. You can read more about this in this BalkanInsight article.

15. Religion was banned in Albania in 1967 when the Communist Party declared Albania to be the first atheistic state. The ban on religion was lifted in 1990.

16. About 60% of Albanians are Muslim. Almost 40% are Christian (Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox). A small number of people are atheists or follow another religion.

Communication

17. Albanian is the official language.

18. The Albanian language has two dialects: Tosk, which is spoken in the south, and Gheg, which is spoken in the north.

19. English is widespread in Tirana. It is on many menus and in museums.

20. Google Translate worked great the few times we needed to translate something.

21. We used Vodafone SIMs. We each got 35GB of data for 30 days at $15 each. We typically use 3GB of data per month.

22. Our SIM cards work great in Tirana and the seaside town of Durres.

Money

23. The Albanian Lek is the official money in Albania. Its currency symbol is ALL.

24. The letter “L” indicates the currency is lek. So 500 L means 500 lek.

25. As of September 2023, 1000 L = ~$10.00. To convert the price to U.S. dollars, we divided by 100.

26. We were able to use Euro at stops along the bus route from Skopje to Tirana and to pay the taxi driver when we arrived in Tirana.

27. Credit cards aren’t accepted everywhere. We had to use cash at some restaurants and all the museums we visited.

28. Tipping isn’t expected, but it is nice to leave a little cash if the service is good.

29. Beware of the ATM fees. When we arrived in Tirana, I went to the first ATM I saw, which was a Tirana Bank ATM. I was charged $7.00 to withdraw $200. I read that ATM withdrawals from Credins Bank and Alpha Bank may be free, but that information was two years old. Still, it would be worth a try.

30. Spend your cash before leaving the country. It is difficult, if not impossible, to exchange it in other countries.

Getting Around

Walking

31. It was easy to get around the city by walking, but the sidewalks were usually crowded.

32. Google Maps worked great for walking directions.

33. Most streets have crosswalks painted on them. If there is no traffic light, all you have to do is step off the curb, and traffic should stop, even on busy streets with several lanes. Still, you should look both ways and use caution; bikes, scooters, and motorcycles don’t always stop.

34. If there is a traffic light, obey the walk/don’t walk signs.

35. Bikes and scooters are less prevalent than in other cities. Even so, it’s best to walk outside the bike lanes and cross bike lanes like you cross a street. Look both ways.

36. Look over your shoulder before moving left or right on the sidewalk (like you do when changing lanes while driving). Despite having designated bike lanes, bikes and scooters are often ridden on the sidewalks, and the riders seldom warn you when they want to pass. Motorcycles occasionally drive on the sidewalks, too.

Public Transportation

37. Uber and Lyft aren’t available in Tirana. Of course, there are taxis, but we usually used buses to get to places that were too far to walk.

38. Google Maps did not work for public transportation.

39. For bus information, we used Moovit. This helped a bit, but wasn’t totally reliable. For example, when we wanted to go to Bunk’Art 1, Moovit told us to take bus L4. We couldn’t find bus L4, but we knew we were supposed to head towards Porcelan, which was bus L11. If in doubt, ask the drivers.

40. Don’t expect to find traditional bus stations. We wanted to buy tickets from Tirana to Durres, so we headed to the bus station (per Google Maps), only to find it was just a bus stop. Fortunately, a local man told us how to get to Durres.

41. There is very little local bus information online. Just show up at the bus station or stop and ask around. Luckily, everyone was helpful.

42. Riding the bus is easy. You pay the ticket man after you get on. A ride in the city was 40 cents (40 lek). You don’t need exact change; the ticket man has plenty.

43. If you arrive by bus from an international city, you will be dropped off on the street near the Tirana International Bus Terminal. When leaving on an international trip, go to the back of the building where you were initially dropped off. There, you will find stores selling tickets for many destinations and bus lines. Again, when unsure, ask around.

44. Your best bet when using buses in Albania is to go with the mindset that as long as you are heading towards your destination, you’re okay.

Food and Water

45. A Google search on the safety of tap water in Tirana turned up everything from “Yes, it’s safe” to “Don’t drink it, you’ll get sick.” I dislike using bottled water, so I filtered and boiled tap water. That worked well.

46. Steve and I aren’t big on traditional food, but we did try some. Albanian cuisine is big on meat, which is often overcooked. The exception was the chicken kabob I had at Taverna Paidhage.

A woman with a chicken kabob
My chicken kabob at Taverna Paidhage tasted as good as it looked.

47. If you love trying traditional food, check out this list of Albanian foods from Nomad Paradise.

48. Generally, restaurant meals were inexpensive. Several times, we had two entrees and two beverages for under $20.

49. While restaurant food was inexpensive, the cost of drinks was often on par with what we’ve paid in other Southeastern European cities.

50. Conversely, we found the prices at grocery stores to be shockingly high, at least compared to other Balkan countries.

Restaurants

51. My favorite restaurant was Lissus Fish. They serve a complementary dish of marinated anchovies (super yummy) and have delicious fish dishes at reasonable prices.

52. We enjoyed dinner at Restaurant Tymi. This small restaurant is packed to the gills with pop culture decor. The food is cheap, and the music is lively. Warning: there may be a line to get in.

A wall of pop culture memorabilia
The walls and ceiling are a pop culture explosion at Restaurant Tymi

53. The food at Serendipity Mexican restaurant wasn’t as good as our homemade burritos, but we still enjoyed a platter of Mexican treats.

A platter of Mexican food
The variety platter for two at Serendipity

54. If you want to go full-on tourist, go to Oda one evening. This restaurant features traditional Albanian food and live music in a courtyard full of lemon trees. It is best to make reservations. We didn’t, so we had to wait a bit, but we got complementary raki while we waited! We didn’t love our food, but it was a fun experience.

Shopping

55. Grocery stores and pharmacies are open on Sunday.

56. We did most of our grocery shopping at Conad since there were several of these near our apartment.

57. The Conad store closest to us was on Bulevardi Zogu 1, but we preferred the Conad store in the Toptani Shopping Center and the one on Kavaja Street.

58. Bags are not provided at grocery stores. You can either buy them at the checkout counter or bring your own.

59. You have to bag your own groceries, and there isn’t a separate area to do this as we’ve seen in some other cities. This can be challenging if you are alone and buying a lot.

60. Pharmacies are indicated by a green cross. In addition to prescription medicine, you buy over-the-counter medication here, too.

61. Rossmann & Lala is your best bet for toiletries, household cleaners, and personal care items.

Things to See and Do

Bunk’Art 1 and Bunk’Art 2

62. Bunk’Art 1 and Bunk’Art 2 are history museums in the abandoned bunkers of the communist era.

63. These are just two of the 750,000 bunkers built in Albania by dictator Enver Hoxha from the late 1960s until his death in 1985 as he became increasingly fearful of foreign invasions.

64. You can see bunkers throughout Albania. Learn more about them in this National Geographic article.

65. Bunk’Art 1 is located on the outskirts of the city and covers five decades from 1939 to 1990. You can learn what life was like under occupation by fascist Italy, during WWII and the short-lived German invasion, and under four and a half decades of communist rule.

A mannequin with a gas mask
This will be your guide at Bunk’Art 1

66. Bunk’Art 2 is in the city center not far from Skanderbeg Square. It focuses on the power of the police from 1912 to 1991.

67. Photos are allowed in both museums.

68. Here is the Bunk’Art museum website.

Churches and Mosques

The Et’ Hem Bej Mosque

Et'hem Bej Mosque
Et’hem Bej Mosque (the building on the left)

69. The Et’ Hem Bej Mosque is a small mosque on Skanderbeg Square.

70. The mosque was built in the 18th century during Ottoman rule. It was closed during the communist era but treated as a historical monument.

71. You can visit the mosque. Women must cover their hair, and everyone must remove their shoes.

72. I couldn’t find information about the visiting hours online. The best thing is to call or check the information posted at the mosque.

The Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral

The Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral
The Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral

73. This modern church opened in 2012.

74. It is just a short walk from Skanderbeg Square.

The Great Mosque of Tirana

The Great Mosque of Tirana
The Great Mosque of Tirana

75. The mosque was still under construction in September 2023. Even so, it is worth seeing.

76. The mosque is also called the Namazgah Mosque. It is a thirteen-minute walk from Skanderbeg Square.

Dajti Mountain

77. Dajti Mountain is close to Bunk’Art 1. It is a great lookout place with much to do according to their website. We were there on a Wednesday in September, and many things were closed.

78. The Dajti Ekspres cable car takes you up and down the mountain. There are several ticket options posted at the office. We paid $14 each for a round trip on the cable car.

Cable cars going up and down Dajti Mountain
The Dajti Ekspres with the city of Tirana below

79. The cable car does not run on Tuesdays unless that Tuesday is a festival day.

The House of Leaves

80. The House of Leaves is also called the Museum of Secret Surveillance.

81. It was originally a private obstetrics clinic in Albania and was briefly used by the Gestapo during WWII. With the advent of communism, it became the headquarters of the Sigurimi, the country’s security, intelligence, and secret police.

82. The museum focuses on the equipment and methods of the Sigurimi.

83. No photos are allowed inside.

The National Historical Museum

84. The National Historical Museum is a large museum that covers the country’s history from the 4th century BC to the mid-20th century.

85. The museum has three floors. The Pavilion of Antiquity, on the first floor, had excellent English explanations. The other two floors did not.

The New Bazaar

86. The New Bazaar is in the Old Town of Tirana. The centerpiece is a glass and steel structure loaded with souvenir and food vendors. Other shops and restaurants fill the streets around it.

The New Bazaar
A small part of the New Bazaar

The Pyramid of Tirana

The Pyramid of Tirana
The Pyramid of Tirana

87. The Pyramid of Tirana was a museum dedicated to Enver Hoxha’s “legacy.” After the fall of communism, it had a few other short-lived uses.

88. The Pyramid is undergoing a renovation that will turn it into a cultural center with classrooms, studios, cafes, and restaurants.

Tanner’s Bridge

89. Tanner’s Bridge was built by the Ottomans in the 18th century. It’s worth your while to see it and get a photo or two if you are in the area.

90. The bridge is a three-minute walk from the Grand Mosque.

A man standing on Tanner’s Bridge
Steve on Tanner’s Bridge

Tirana Castle

91. The Tirana Castle dates back to the 1300s, and only a few walls remain. The area inside the walls now houses shops, bars, and restaurants.

Two photos of the Tirana Castle
The entrance of the Tirana Castle and raki bottles in a shop in the castle

See more photos of Tirana and Durres in our “Tirana, Albania Photo Gallery.”

In Summary

We didn’t love Tirana. It was too busy, and there wasn’t a lot to do. There is definitely a lack of museums. We were disappointed that the National Gallery of Art is permanently closed (according to their website).

If you are in the region, it is worth a short trip to see what it’s like. We were there for four weeks, which was too long.

Until Next Time

Do you live in Tirana, or have you been there? If so, Steve and I would love to hear what you think about it and if I left anything out. Just drop a comment in the comment section below.

If you’re planning to visit Skopje, check out our post “What You Need To Know When Visiting Skopje, North Macedonia.”

Happy traveling,
Linda

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A Venetian Surprise in Shkoder, Albania

One of the many things I love when traveling is discovering something incongruous, like when Steve and I ran across the wonderful Beatles Museum in the Hungarian city of Eger. You can read about that in our post about Eger and Egerszalok.

In early October 2023, we discovered another unexpected gem while visiting the Albanian city of Shkoder. It was the Venice Art Mask Factory.

A Little Background

We spent most of September in Tirana, the capital of Albania. That was followed by four weeks in Montenegro’s capital of Podgorica. On the bus ride from Tirana to Podgorica, we passed through Shkoder, Albania.

Steve and I liked what little we saw of the city, the 5th largest in Albania. I was particularly enamored with the magnolia trees that lined the streets. Even though they were several months past blooming, they were loaded with seed pods, and they were magnificent.

Once we settled in Podgorica, we arranged to take a side trip to Shkoder.

What to Do in Shkoder

Shkoder, with a population of 200,000, has several interesting things for tourists to do.

You can explore the Rozafa Castle ruins. You can check out the “Marubi” National Museum of Photography and the Site of Witness and Memory museum, which commemorates the victims of the communist regime in Shkoder.

You can see two cathedrals: St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the Orthodox Cathedral of the Nativity. You can visit mosques, including the Ebu Bekr Mosque and the Lead Mosque.

Farther from the city, Shkodra Lake and the Mesi Bridge are waiting for you.

But what really caught us by surprise was the Venice Art Mask Factory.

About the Venice Art Mask Factory

According to their website, the Venice Art Mask Factory is the biggest supplier of Venetian and masquerade masks. All the masks are handmade and begin with handcrafted papier mache. Then, they are individually decorated.

Photo collage of Venetian-style masks
Just a few of the impressive masks

In addition to being worn at the Carnival of Venice and other masquerade festivals around the world, these marvelous masks are used in Las Vegas shows and movies like Eyes Wide Shut. They also adorn the walls of restaurants and homes.

How to Get to the Factory

The Venice Art Mask Factory building
The Venice Art Mask Factory

The factory is an eight-minute drive from the city center, which is great if you have a car. We found that public transportation in Shkoder is scarce, and information is hard to come by. We waited 45 minutes for one taxi and an hour for a second one that never showed up.

If you don’t have a car, you can rent a bike. They are all over the city.

Steve and I chose to walk. It was an easy half-hour walk from the city center.

Our Experience at the Factory

There are two sections to see at the factory: the showroom and the factory itself.

The entrance to the Venice Art Mask Factory showroom
The showroom entrance

We saw the showroom first and were blown away. There was so much to see, and it was all enchanting.

After taking in the showroom, we saw the factory. It is a light-filled building with two rows of long tables where the masks move from table to table as they become masterpieces.

We were there on a Sunday, so no one was working in the factory. According to Tripadvisor, if you go on a weekday, you can see the artists at work.

Photos aren’t allowed in the factory, but be sure to notice the lovely paintings on the walls.

We were shown around by Tony, who explained the mask-making process in detail and answered all our questions.

We toured the showroom and factory at no charge. However, some Tripadvisor posters said they paid 3 euro to tour the factory, so be prepared. Since we don’t buy souvenirs, as they would end up in our storage unit, we gave Tony a donation. We never felt any pressure to buy something, but there were many beautiful creations we would love to own.

Until Next Time

That’s it for this short but sweet post. If you get a chance to visit Shkoder, which I highly recommend, do not miss this gem.

Happy traveling,
Linda

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Skopje, North Macedonia Photo Gallery

Steve and I spent most of August 2023 in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. This city is unlike any we have visited. It’s quirky, it’s over-the-top, it’s never boring. We enjoyed seeing hundreds of statues and loved the museums. I hope you enjoy a look at some of the highlights of Skopje.

To see a slideshow of the images with captions, press any image.

You can read more about Skopje in “What Is Skopje Really Like? An Honest Review” and “What You Need to Know When Visiting Skopje, North Macedonia.”

Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: September 2023

Hi! I hope you had a great September. Ours was quiet, which is sometimes a good thing. And now, here we are in October, and it’s time for another monthly update.

Steve and I spent most of September in Tirana, Albania. Since we had just come from Skopje, North Macedonia, Albania’s neighbor to the east, we couldn’t help comparing these two capital cities.

The streets of Skopje were uncrowded; Tirana’s streets were full of people. The city center of Skopje is loaded with classical-style white buildings due to the Skopje 2014 project; Tirana is full of unique buildings. In Skopje, stores and many restaurants are closed on Sunday. When we arrived in Tirana, we were shocked that nothing was closed on Sunday. It made sense when we learned that Albania is 60% Muslim. By contrast, North Macedonia is 60% Christian.

Even though our time in Tirana was more laid back than usual, Steve and I got to know a little about this city and the country of Albania. Here are the highlights, the low points, and what we did in September.

All money is in U.S. dollars.

Highlights

Inexpensive Restaurants

Steve loves to cook, but I would eat out every day if I could. Unfortunately, that isn’t in our budget. But we came close to doing that in Tirana. I can’t remember a place we’ve been where restaurants were so inexpensive. It is possible to get lunch or dinner with beverages for two people for under $20. While the cost of restaurant food was very low, the cost of drinks was similar to what we’ve seen in other Balkan cities.

We took advantage of that, enjoying traditional food as well as Mexican, Chinese, and Indian cuisines. We also ate seafood at Lissus Fish, where I had fish soup and marinated anchovies for the first time. I loved them both.

A sign in a Mexican restaurant in Tirana
A sign in the Serendipity Mexican Resaurant

Seeing the city grow

Albania is one of the poorest European countries, but Tirana is growing. The population of around half a million is increasing by 30,000 people per year, and tourism is rising.

You can read about Albania’s growth in this article by Emerging Europe.

There are already many modern buildings, and more are in progress. I loved the unique architectural styles.

Two modern buildings in Tirana
Two of my favorite buildings in Tirana

A Short Trip to the Coast

It didn’t take long for us to see the Tirana attractions we were interested in, and it was too hot to hike, so we decided to spend a few days at the coast.

We spent three nights in Durres, which is on the Adriatic Sea. The point of the trip was to do a little lazing by a pool and listen to the sea. And that is precisely what we did.

Our hotel, the Hotel Palace, made it easy to relax. I spent two days doing nothing but lying on a lounger and reading (well, maybe I snuck a few drinks and a meal in here and there). Breakfast was included, and there was an amazing variety of foods.

Four photos of the Palace Hotel in Durres
Scenes from our stay at the Palace Hotel

I wish I could sing the town’s praises as well, but frankly, Durres was the least pleasant beach town Steve and I have been to. There is a lot of poverty, and the beach wasn’t very inviting.

Bunkers and apartments in Durres, Albania
Three abandoned bunkers in Durres

Nice hotels are popping up, and there are some upscale shops and restaurants among the rundown buildings.

Dresses in store windows
Fancy dresses in shops on the main street

We stopped at Troy Motor and met Lona. She is super friendly and recommended two restaurants to us. If you are into motorcycles, particularly Harleys, and find yourself in Durres, stop in and say hello.

Low Points

The cost of groceries

We were perplexed by the high price of groceries and couldn’t understand how restaurant food can be so cheap and groceries can be so expensive. The prices may be in line with grocery costs in the U.S., but they were a shock to us after having spent the last several months in Croatia, Romania, and North Macedonia.

Closed Attractions

There aren’t a lot of tourist attractions in Tirana, and two of them on our sightseeing list have been permanently closed: the National Gallery of Art and the Mezuraj Museum, which at one time displayed art and archaeological specimens owned by the Mezuraj family.

Trying to Fill a Prescription

After our experience with buying medicine in Turkey, we were spoiled. All we had to do there was go to a pharmacy and tell them what we wanted. Well, Albania is just the opposite. There, you need a prescription for pretty much everything, and the doctors I saw would only write prescriptions for medicines related to their specialties.

I was running low on diabetes medication, so I found a private clinic. Their schedule and ours didn’t mesh, so I went to a private hospital. First, I had to pay $40 to see a doctor. Then, I spent the next half hour saying no to the battery of tests she wanted to run. She finally wrote the prescription and suggested I get a few simple tests. I got a quote for $43 for a blood test and a urinalysis. This was twice the cost than at the first clinic I went to, so I took my prescription and left.

The doctor said I might have trouble finding my medication and was referred to Farmacia Greke. I did find it there, but it was $100 for 28 pills! I decided to wait until we get to Montenegro, where I hope to have better luck.

After wasting several hours and $40, I learned that it is hard for tourists to fill prescriptions in Albania. Specific medicines may be unavailable or hard to find, they may not have the dosage you need, and they may be expensive. It’s best to make sure you have plenty of all of your medications when visiting Albania.

What We Did

Explored Bunk’Art 1 and Bunk’Art 2

Two photos of the entrance to Bunk’Art 1
The Bunk’Art 1 entrance

When I first heard of Bunk’Art, I thought it was an art gallery in a bunker. It isn’t. Bunk’Art 1 and Bunk’Art 2 are indeed bunkers, but they have been turned into museums about Albania’s communist era (1946-1991).

We visited both. They are full of artifacts that illustrate the horrors of that era. There is a lot of emphasis on the dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country under communism from 1946 until he died in 1985.

Hoxha had 750,000 bunkers built throughout Albania from the late 1960s until his death as he became increasingly fearful of foreign invasions after politically isolating Albania from most of the region.

You can learn more about the Albanian bunkers in this National Geographic article.

Visited the House of Leaves

The House of Leaves in Tirana
The House of Leaves with listening ears in front

The House of Leaves was built in 1931 as the first private obstetrics clinic in Albania. It was briefly used by the Gestapo in 1943. With the advent of communism, it became the headquarters of the Sigurimi, the country’s security, intelligence, and secret police.

The building is called the House of Leaves because of the vines growing on it.

The museum, also called the Museum of Secret Surveillance, focuses on the equipment and methods of the Sigurimi. I particularly liked the exhibit about the movies produced to further the communist agenda.

Checked Out the National Historical Museum 

The National Historical Museum in Tirana
The front of the museum

The National Historical Museum is the largest museum in Albania. It covers the country’s history from the 4th century BC to the mid-20th century.

The best part was the Pavilion of Antiquity, which covers the Prehistoric Period to the Early Middle Ages. I’m not usually excited by ancient artifacts, but they were well presented in this museum. I even saw a few unique items, including this tool to measure dry goods:

Ancient measuring device
An ancient measuring device

The Pavilion of Antiquity had detailed descriptions in both Albanian and English. Unfortunately, the rest of the museum lacked English descriptions, even though there were many interesting exhibits.

Both Bunk’Art museums and the House of Leaves showcase the evils of the communist period. The National Historical Museum of Tirana has the Hall of Communist Persecution as well. I was disappointed here and in Skopje that there aren’t any museum exhibits about the fall of Communism, which was more than 30 years ago.

Climbed the Pyramid

In 1988, three years after Hoxha’s death, a museum dedicated to his “legacy” was built in Tirana. It was in the shape of a pyramid.

After the fall of communism, the pyramid had a few other uses. It was a nightclub, an event space, and a NATO base during the Kosovo War (1998-1999). After this, it was abandoned and fell into disrepair.

One morning, I decided to see it. I was expecting a wreck covered in graffiti since that was the last photo I had seen of it. I was delighted to find a gleaming white structure with dozens of brightly colored cubes being built around it. These buildings will be used as cafes, restaurants, and classrooms for after-school education.

Here is more information on the pyramid project.

Three photos of the Tirana Pyramid
The pyramid and one of the new buildings

Saw a Movie (With Popcorn!)

I discovered a movie theater showing My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3. With some sleuthing, I learned that the movies are shown in English with Albanian subtitles. So Steve and I took advantage of the opportunity to see it.

There were only about ten people in the theater for the matinee. Tickets weren’t exactly a bargain at $7 each, and popcorn and drinks were another $14, but still cheaper than U.S. prices.

It was fun to spend a few hours in the theater, but the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the first one.

Perused the New Bazaar

Although we are seldom in the market for souvenirs or trinkets, we had to check out the New Bazaar. This is a neighborhood in Tirana’s Old Town that, as the name suggests, is a market center. There are over 300 businesses in the New Bazaar, but the centerpiece is the eye-catching steel and glass structure built in 2017.

Carpets at the New Bazaar in Tirana
Colorful carpets for sale

No More Mr. Nice Guy and Gal

Steve and I headed to our next city, Podgorica, Montenegro, at the end of the month. As soon as we arrived, we were impressed with the city, or at least the part we were staying in. It is a modern area full of apartments, restaurants, and shops. Our Airbnb was in a new building.

When we first entered the Airbnb, it looked good. It was modern and appeared to be clean. We were surprised to see a mini fridge instead of a full-size one. That oversight was on us. Looking back, we saw that there weren’t any photos of the refrigerator in the listing. Except for one past stay, we’ve always had a full-size fridge. Now we have something else to add to our Airbnb checklist.

We asked our host if we could get a second mini-fridge since we booked for four weeks. She told us that small refrigerators are standard in one-bedroom apartments in Montenegro, and they wouldn’t provide another. I checked other Airbnb one-bedroom listings in Montenegro, and they all had full-size fridges. Interestingly, the dishwasher was large.

As I discussed in “The Truth About Staying In Airbnbs,” apartments generally look great on the surface. However, with a few exceptions, something has been overlooked or ignored. The main culprits, but not the only ones, are dirty cooking supplies, full vacuum cleaners, and dirty air conditioner and bathroom exhaust filters.

Up until now, we have taken care of these issues, not wanting to bother the host for minor things. That stops now. In this apartment, we found two pans that were unusable. The coating on the non-stick pan was flaking off. The spatula was coated with dried-on food. The bathroom vent was dirty and the filter was missing. We also found nine places that weren’t clean, including the balcony, which hadn’t even been swept. We let our host know. They replaced the kitchen items and sent a cleaner to take care of the rest.

Steve and I decided that from this point on, we are not going to fix these issues. We will ask the host to take care of them. I’ll let you know how that goes.

On the Website

There were two new posts in September: “Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: August 2023” and “What Is Skopje Really Like? An Honest Review.”

To see more of Tirana, check out our Tirana photo gallery.

I’ve been able to tweak this website a bit to get closer to the design I want. Changing themes is proving to be time consuming and challenging, but I am not giving up.

Where to Next

At the end of the month, Steve and I headed to Montenegro for eight weeks, where we are hoping for cooler weather so we can do some hiking. We will split our time between the capital of Podgorica and the city of Kotor. Then, it’s off to Rome for a short trip before we get on a ship and cruise back to the U.S.

We will dock in New York City on December 19th and spend four nights there before going to Jacksonville for a month. I have only been to New York City once, and that was 44 years ago. I can’t wait to see the city at Christmastime and visit the 9/11 Memorial.

Until Next Time

That’s it for our travels in September. It looks like things will be picking up in the next several months. One thing is for sure; we intend to enjoy the fall weather.

Drop a comment in the section below and let Steve and I know what you did in September and what you have planned for the rest of 2023.

Happy traveling,
Linda

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What Is Skopje Really Like? An Honest Review

If you asked 1,000 people which European city they would most like to visit, I’d be surprised if even one would put Skopje, North Macedonia, at the top of their list.

It’s not because Skopje isn’t worth visiting, but it is not well known and can’t compare to the draw of many European cities. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider visiting it.

Read on to find out what Skopje is really like, at least from my perspective.

A Little Background

Steve and I spent most of August 2023 in Skopje. It was the 88th city we’ve visited. We chose it for several reasons:

1. It is outside the Schengen Area – we had to spend 90 days out of the Schengen Area after visiting Greece, Croatia, and Italy in the spring of 2023.

2. It is inexpensive – to keep our budget under control, we offset visits to expensive places like the U.K., the U.S., and Western Europe with trips to more economical places.

3. It looked unique – I had read about the elegant classical buildings, the multitude of statues, and the two new pedestrian bridges lined with sculptures that resulted from the Skopje 2014 project. I was curious to see them.

What’s Good About Skopje?

It’s Never Boring

There’s no denying that Skopje is interesting. The buildings, sculptures, and bridges in the city center are fun to explore. Skopje is the perfect city for you if you love to turn a corner and see something unexpected.

Six photos of Skopje
Skopje is beauty mixed with quirkiness

The Compact City Center

Most of the attractions are within walking distance of each other. For example, you can visit Macedonia Square and then cross over the mid-15th century Stone Bridge to Old Town and the Old Bazaar.

The Stone Bridge in Skopje
The Stone Bridge heading towards Macedonia Square

Old Town and the Old Bazaar

You can spend hours exploring Old Town and the Old Bazaar and never get bored. In addition to oodles of souvenir shops, there is an entire street lined with jewelry stores.

A street in the Old Bazaar, Skopje
A typical street in the Old Bazaar

There are also many stores selling ballgowns and wedding dresses.

Two dresses for sale in the Old Bazaar
If you’re in the market for a fairytale dress, you can find it in the Old Bazaar

Learn more about the Old Bazaar in this article by Wander-Lush.

The Public Transportation

For times when you don’t want to walk, there are a lot of buses. You can use the Skopska app to get tickets for a single trip or a weekly or monthly pass.

Uber and Lyft aren’t available, but there are plenty of taxis.

Good Restaurants With Good Prices

You won’t want for places to eat. And the prices are kind to your budget. As you would expect, there are plenty of traditional restaurants. However, our favorite was a Mexican restaurant called Amigos. Their margaritas alone were worth a visit.

A Few Impressive Museums

While there aren’t many museums and tourist attractions in Skopje, the museums we visited were very good. Steve and I were particularly impressed with the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia and The Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Independence.

The Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia
The Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia

English is Everywhere

It is easy to communicate since almost everyone speaks English. It is also widespread in museums and on menus.

Diverse Architecture

If you can take your eyes off the glitz of the Skopje 2014 project, you can see examples of other architectural styles.

Photos of four buildings in Skopje
Different architectural styles in Skopje clockwise from upper left: the neoclassical Ristik Palace, the postmodern Church of St. Clement of Ohrid, a Brutalist building, and a 15th-century Ottoman building (originally a bath, now an art gallery)

What Could Be Better?

As entertaining as it was to experience the city center, I couldn’t help thinking that with the Skopje 2014 project, the city leaders bit off more than they could chew. Maintenance seems to be a problem. There were just too many things that needed attention.

The Bridge of Art and the Bridge of Civilization

Both the Bridge of Art and the Bridge of Civilization were built as part of Skopje 2014. Both of these pedestrian bridges are lined with sculptures of men who were important to North Macedonian history. Only half of the sculptures on the Bridge of Art had name plates when we visited, and none on the Bridge of Civilization did. Older photos of the bridges show nameplates.

The Bridge of Art in Skopje
The Bridge of Art

In addition to the statues, both of these bridges are lined with ornate lights. We never saw them on even though we visited during tourist season.

The Bridge of Art in Skopje at night
What the Bridge of Art looks like with the lights on (photo from Canva)

The National Theater

The National Theater building is lovely to look at, being adorned with statues and theatrical masks. There are also several free-standing statues around the building. Unfortunately, the area near the ground is already in disrepair, as you can see from this photo:

The National Theater in Skopje
The National Theater – you can see the disrepair along the bottom of the photo

The Litter

There is a lot of litter. While it isn’t unusual for cities to have a litter problem, I think a city that is trying to attract tourists would take extra care to keep the city clean.

Surprisingly, we saw much more litter around the city center than where we stayed, which was a 20-minute walk from the center.

The Graffiti

There is also way too much graffiti.

Two photos of the National Opera and Ballet exterior
Top photo – mosaics on the National Opera and Ballet building; Bottom photo – graffiti on the side of the building

The River

The section of the Vardar River that flows through the city center was not the least bit pleasant. This may have been because the water level was low.

There was a lot of litter in the river, some of which was accumulating on posts. While looking online, I discovered these weren’t posts but water jets meant to put on a lighted water show. Like the lights on the bridges, these were not working when we were there.

You can see how pretty the fountain looks in the featured photo.

The Vardar River
The Vardar River was not picturesque

The Pirate Ships

Yes, you read that right. There are replicas of three pirate ships on the Vardar River. One ship is a restaurant and hotel, one is deserted, and one is in ruins.

If you’re wondering what pirate ships have to do with the landlocked country of North Macedonia, you are not alone. North Macedonian architect Nikola Strezovski said it best: “Skopje 2014 was something that shocked us all at the time. By the time the pirate ships arrived on the Vardar River, we were used to crazy.”

Two pirate ships in Skopje
Top photo: The Hotel Senigallia (hotel and restaurant). Bottom photo: an abandoned ship

The Fountain Water

This last item is minor, but the water in the Warrior on a Horse monument was green. A lovely shade of blue would be so much better.

Lower part of the Warrior on a Horse monument in Skopje
Blue water is pretty; green water – not so much

Should You Visit Skopje?

I don’t believe Skopje is a good choice for the occasional traveler. There are more exciting places with many more tourist attractions. But for frequent and full-time travelers, it is worth a look. You can revel in the kitsch, eat well without spending a fortune, and learn cool historical facts about a country and region you likely know little about.

You can read about our stay in Skopje in “Wind and Whim’s Monthly Recap: August 2023” and see more of the city in our post “Skopje, North Macedonia Photo Gallery.”

If you are interested in visiting Skopje, check out our post “What You Need To Know When Visiting Skopje, North Macedonia” for helpful tips. For a comprehensive list of things to do in Skopje, check out this post by Kami & the Rest of the World.

Until Next Time

That’s it for my review of Skopje. As always, Steve and I would love to hear what you think of this unusual city. Do you live in Skopje? Have you been there? Do you agree with my assessment? Let us know!

Happy traveling
Linda

Feature image from Canva

This post was originally published on Sept. 20, 2023.

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Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: August 2023

Hi there! Can you believe it’s September already? The summer has been flying by for us, but we’re having fun. I hope you are, too.

Steve and I started August with two nights in Brasov, Romania, and spent the remainder in Skopje, North Macedonia.

Check out this monthly update to see our August highlights and low points, what we did, and where we are going. 

All money is in U.S. dollars.

Highlights

Staying at Hotel Belvedere, Brasov

We made a short trip to Brasov to revisit Bran Castle (aka Dracula’s Castle) before leaving Romania. That part of the trip didn’t go as planned, as you’ll read below. However, our hotel in Brasov turned out to be a real gem.

We had a large, comfortable room, but the restaurant was the best part. We arrived at the hotel mid-afternoon and went looking for a late lunch. We were told there wasn’t any food service until 4:00 p.m., and there weren’t any stores or other restaurants nearby. I made do with a granola bar, and Steve sacrificed our last Milka chocolate bar. 

You better believe we were at the restaurant at 4:00. Once we opened the menu, we were hooked. Every option looked so good we could have spent two weeks there and never ordered the same thing twice. 

The food was so delicious and beautifully presented that we ate there on our second night, too. 

Filet mignon with vegetables
Delicious and picture-perfect food at the Hotel Belvedere

Discovering How Much We Like Skopje

Because we knew little about Skopje or the country of North Macedonia, we weren’t sure what to expect. The city is getting on travelers’ radar but still has a way to go before it is well known.

We were blown away. We had a modern, spacious apartment near the city center. It was just a 20-minute walk to the main square. If we walked in the other direction for 20 minutes, there was a large mall with a huge grocery store. There were frequent buses along this street. There was also a small market just a few minutes away.

View of Skopje buildings and mountains
Our morning view

Two things about the city surprised us. The first was the prevalence of English. Almost everyone speaks English. And they speak it well. Signs often have Macedonian, Albanian, and English on them. Information in museums and menus also include English.

The second thing was the lack of crowds. Our apartment overlooked an intersection of two main streets, but there was less traffic and, therefore, less noise than in other cities. It was great to walk on uncrowded sidewalks.

We liked many things about Skopje, but that’s for another post.

Seeing Some Great Museums

We visited several museums and were impressed with their quality, especially the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia and the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Independence. You can read more about these museums and other places we visited here.

For a comprehensive list of things to do in and near Skopje, see “21 Things to Do in Skopje, North Macedonia” by Wander-Lush.

The Macedonian Memorial for Holocaust Victims
A memorial statue outside of the Holocaust Museum

The Holocaust Museum was the best museum we visited in Skopje. There was so much information that even after two hours, we hadn’t seen it all.

A video about Hitler’s rise to power gave me chills, as I can see how easily a society can head down the road to the unimaginable. Yes, I’m talking to you, U.S.A. 

Even though I’ve been to many holocaust museums, I still learned new things. The video showed bonfires where tens of thousands of books written by Jews were burned. It is alarmingly similar to the banning that is going on in parts of the U.S. where books by Black and LGBTQ authors or about Black and LGBTQ issues have been banned.

The other thing I learned was after the liberation of the concentration camps, General Eisenhower invited members of Congress and the press to tour the liberated camps. He did this because he knew words could never express the horrors found there, and so there would be proof, as he feared there would be deniers.

Making a Kitty Friend

There was a pet store on the ground floor of our building, and they had the most adorable kittens. One was orange, and two were grey. After a few days, the grey ones were adopted, but the orange one remained. 

We liked this gentle, affectionate cat so much that we visited him every day. He was still at the pet store when we left Skopje. We hope he gets a loving home soon. 

Two photos of an orange kitten
Our little buddy

Getting Our Second Housesitting Gig

This past spring, we joined Trusted Housesitters, hoping to get some house sits in places that are expensive to visit, like the United Kingdom, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. The idea is that you stay in someone’s home for free while they are away. The offerings almost always involve watching pets. 

Not long after we joined, we got our first gig! We weren’t looking for sits in the U.S., but we came across one in the Town of Tonawanda, New York, where I grew up. Steve grew up in the adjacent village of Kenmore. We will be watching one cat named Niki for 17 nights in February and will be able to visit family in the Western New York Area.

Recently, we arranged a second sit. We will spend 16 nights in Bury St. Edmunds, England, in March while caring for and no doubt falling in love with two dogs, Mollie and Angus. We plan to be low-key during this stay but take advantage of being in England to spend time in Cambridge and London before and after the housesit.

Learning to Ask Airbnb Hosts for What We Want

We are happiest when we have a kitchen with what we call the kitchen trifecta: an oven, a microwave, and a dishwasher. You’d be surprised how many Airbnb listings only have two of these three items.

When we were looking for apartments in Albania and Montenegro, dishwashers were prevalent, but microwaves were virtually non-existent. In two that we booked, we asked the hosts before booking if they would be willing to add a microwave, and both said yes. Because we asked, we even got a good discount on our Jacksonville Airbnb.

When you are staying somewhere for four weeks, the hosts are pretty agreeable to any reasonable request.

Low Points

Getting Rained Out in Bran

The whole point of going to Brasov was to take a day trip to the nearby town of Bran to visit Bran Castle. We had been there on a tour in 2018 but hoped to see more of the castle and the town. 

Bran Castle courtyard
The courtyard in Bran Castle

A receptionist at our hotel said we could get a bus to Bran near the train station, but when we got there, several people told us we had to go to bus station #2. But no one could tell us how to get there. 

I saw people lining up to get on a bus, and I asked if they were going to Bran. The driver said no, but he could take us to the other bus station, and he did so without charging us.

After waiting 50 minutes for our bus and an hour-long drive, we finally got to Bran.

Once at the castle, we wound through it along with what seemed like every other tourist in Romania. Once we were through with the inside, we headed out to explore the grounds and the town, only to be met with a downpour even though no rain was predicted. We waited it out at a café, where I had the least delicious cake I’ve ever eaten.

Our first visit, in 2018, wasn’t the best either. The castle part was alright, but the bus trip from Bucharest and back was longer than expected because of heavy traffic. When we arrived back in Bucharest, it was after 11:00 p.m., and the metro wasn’t running. I remember frantically trying to find a taxi at an intersection of three roads. It took a while, but we finally got one.

If we ever decide to revisit Bran Castle, which seems cursed for us, we will stay in the town of Bran, which, from what little we’ve seen, looks quite charming.

Dealing With SIM Card Issues

On our first day in Skopje, we headed to Telekom (T-Mobile) to get local SIM cards. Even though T-Mobile doesn’t have the best reputation in the U.S., it usually works well overseas. 

We got our SIM cards installed but were unable to log into the app to purchase the package we wanted. It took four days and several phone calls before the company could make that happen. Then, we discovered that the package worked in other Balkan countries but not in North Macedonia.

We switched to Lycamobile and paid a lot less for hassle-free SIM cards.

Dealing With the Heat

The temperature was in the mid-90s almost every day, and the sun was intense. We tried to do outdoor things early in the day or the evening, but because of the heat, there were a few things we didn’t do. One was hiking up Mt. Vodno, and the other was a day trip to Matka Canyon. Perhaps we will do these on a future trip to North Macedonia.

We had spent July in Bucharest, and it was hot there too. Note to self: Next summer, go someplace cool or on the water.

Other Things We Did

Wandered Skopje’s City Center

Steve and I spent many hours taking in the beauty of the city center. Its highlight is the 92-foot or 28-meter tall statue, Warrior on a Horse. It is in Macedonia Square and depicts Alexander the Great on his favorite horse.

Warrior on a Horse statue in Skopje
The Warrior on a Horse statue dominates Macedonia Square

This is only one of the many monuments and statues the city erected as part of its Skopje 2014 project. The project also included constructing many buildings and replacing the facades of others to make the city more attractive to tourists and foster national pride.

Four statues in Skopje
Four statues in Skopje

Gambled

Neither Steve nor I are gamblers. We like to see something for our money. The last time we went to a casino was in 2018 in Bulgaria. We played slots there and had what they termed a “massive win.” It was all of $18.

There are a lot of casinos and slot halls in Skopje, so I figured, “When in Rome.” We spent a few hours at the Flamingo Casino playing the slots. We didn’t win anything, but it only cost us $25, so it was a good way to spend some time when it was too hot to be outside.

Planned a Lot

It’s no secret that travel planning is time-consuming and not much fun, but we bit the bullet and made some serious headway on our plans for the next six months (as you can read about below).

On the Website

After two months of working on a new website design, I decided to put it on hold, get a few posts written, and then try designing a new website using a different theme (the basis of a website).

Instead of considering it a failure, I see it as being several steps closer to creating our new site, since much of what I designed can be used with another theme.

Besides the July 2023 update, I published two new posts, “The Truth About Staying in Airbnbs” and “79 Things to Know When Visiting Skopje, North Macedonia.”

If Skopje interests you, check out our Skopje photo gallery.

Where to next? 

We have our travels pretty much planned through mid-March. This is such a change from how we usually travel, which is to plan one or two months ahead. This time, since we booked a Transatlantic cruise leaving Rome on December 4th, we thought it prudent to plan our stays up to and after the cruise.

Our ship is scheduled to dock in New York City on December 19th, so of course, we had to take advantage of that and spend a few days in the city. Then, we will head to Jacksonville, Florida, to spend Christmas with our daughters and stay for most of January to visit family and friends, see doctors, and stock up on supplies.

Here’s our itinerary so far:

Tirana, AlbaniaAug. 31 – Sept. 28
Podgorica, MontenegroSept. 28 – Oct. 26
Kotor, MontenegroOct. 26 – Nov. 24
Rome, ItalyNov. 24- Dec. 4
CruiseDec. 4 – Dec. 19
New York CityDec. 19 – Dec. 23
Jacksonville, FloridaDec. 23 – Jan. 20
OPENJan. 20 – Feb. 9
Tonawanda, New YorkFeb. 9 – Feb. 27
OPENFeb. 27 – Mar. 5
Bury St. Edmunds, EnglandMar. 5 – Mar. 21

Until Next Time

That’s it for our monthly update for August. As always, Steve and I would love to hear about your travels and thoughts about this post.

Happy traveling,
Linda

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What You Need to Know When Visiting Skopje, North Macedonia

If you’re looking for somewhere unique and inexpensive to visit in Europe, consider Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. This Balkan city is uncrowded and easy to get around. Its city center is a sight to see, with larger-than-life monuments, random statues, ornate bridges, and elegant buildings, thanks to the Skopje 2014 project (more on that below).

Steve and I ended up in Skopje in August 2023 for two reasons. One, we needed to find a place to visit outside the Schengen Area due to its visa restrictions. Two, I had read about the Skopje 2014 project and was intrigued.

We enjoyed our four weeks in Skopje. Now, I am happy to share what we learned while visiting Skopje so you can have an enjoyable visit too.

All money is in U.S. dollars

About Skopje

1. About 500,000 people live in Skopje.

2. Skopje is not crowded. There are 3,700 people per square mile. Compare this to New York City, with 29,000 people per square mile or 8,800 people per square mile in Budapest (data from Wikipedia). The only place we saw crowds was in the Old Bazaar, but even that wasn’t bad.

3. On July 26, 1963, an earthquake destroyed almost 80% of the city’s buildings and killed over 1,000 people.

4. The city is surrounded by mountains.

5. Macedonia Square is the center of the city. Visit it to see architecture, statues, fountains, and restaurants in a vibrant setting.

6. We saw little street art, but far too much graffiti.

7. The Vardar River runs through the city. The water level was low when we were there, and the section that runs through the city center had a lot of debris.

Vardar River view Skopje
Two lovely buildings, Skopje Fortress, and graffiti flank the Vardar River

About North Macedonia

8. Two million people call North Macedonia home.

9. The country’s official name is the Republic of North Macedonia.

10. The Republic of North Macedonia is a young country. It declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

11. Upon gaining independence, the country was named the Republic of Macedonia. Because there is a geographic region in Greece by the same name, the Greek government took issue with this. After 27 years, the official name became the Republic of North Macedonia. You can read more about this here.

Culture

12. Most stores and many restaurants are closed on Sunday.

13. About 60% of North Macedonians are Orthodox Christian. More than 30% are Muslim.

14. There are a lot of casinos and slot halls in Skopje.

15. I was impressed with the lack of pressure from vendors in the Old Bazaar. One storekeeper asked us if we would like to be his customers, but most let us walk by without comment if we didn’t show interest in their products. It is such a contrast to Morocco, where the taxi drivers grab your luggage and demand to know where you are going, and the vendors make leeches look timid.

16. Most stores, restaurants, and attractions will be closed during holidays. Holidayapi.com can help you see which holidays may impact your visit. Keep in mind: if a holiday falls on a weekend, businesses may be closed the Friday before or the Monday after.

The Skopje 2014 Project

17. The Skopje 2014 project took place from 2010 to 2014.

18. During this time, many new buildings were constructed, and others were renovated. Giant monuments and smaller statues were erected throughout the city center.

19. The project was intended to make the city more attractive to tourists and boost the national identity.

20. The project’s centerpiece is the majestic Warrior on a Horse monument in Macedonia Square. The warrior represented is Alexander the Great, but because of tensions with Greece over what they perceive to be the appropriation of Greek culture, the statue is not referred to as Alexander the Great.

The Warrior on a Horse statue in Skopje
The Warrior on a Horse statue in Macedonia Square

Language

21. Macedonian is the official language of North Macedonia.

22. Almost everyone speaks English. And they speak it well. The exception would be some of the older people.

23. Signs pointing to places of interest are in Macedonian, English, and Albanian.

24. It’s always nice to learn a few words, such as hello, please, and thank you, in the local language. However, you probably won’t use them much since English is so prevalent. If you need to communicate in Macedonian, an app like Google Translate should do the trick.

Communication

25. The European emergency number is 112. The operators speak English, which I learned when I had to call after getting stuck in an elevator in Bulgaria.

26. If you are looking for a local SIM card, the three main providers are Telekom (T Mobile), A1, and Lycamobile.

27. If you need a local SIM card, I recommend Lycamobile. We got our cards at Lycamobile POS Doctor Mobile on Blvd. Partizanski Odredi. For $3.50, we got 5GB of data for 30 days. Since we have wifi in our Airbnb, 5GB is more than enough for exploring the city.

28. I would advise you to stay away from Telekom. Their prices are much higher than Lycamobile’s, and many of their packages have to be purchased through the app. This would be fine, but neither Steve nor I could register on the app. It refused to accept our email addresses. It took four days to get corporate to install the package we chose, only to discover it was useless in North Macedonia. The package was called the Balkan package. It works in other Balkan countries but not in North Macedonia.

29. I can’t speak to the quality of A1. We tried to buy SIM cards at their store in Skopje City Mall and were shocked to find they didn’t have any left that day. This has never happened to us before.

30. The above experience is why you should always do your homework and know what data package you want. We got lazy, and it cost us time and money.

Money

31. The Macedonian denar is the official money in North Macedonia. Its currency symbol is MKD.

32. As of August 2023, 1,000 MDK = ~$18.00.

33. Credit cards are widely accepted.

34. Euro were required in the Flamingo Casino. If you don’t have any, you can change your denar in the casino.

35. North Macedonia does not have a tipping culture. If you do want to tip (we always do because it’s so ingrained in us), 10% – 15% is recommended in restaurants. I would use this as a guide for other times when service has been exceptional.

Getting Around

36. Most streets don’t have street name signs, but Google Maps worked well everywhere we went.

37. Uber and Lyft are not available in Skopje. There are plenty of taxis, but it is best to negotiate the price upfront.

38. Public buses were plentiful and easy to use with a map app like Google Maps or Moveit.

39. Bus stops are not consistent. Some have shelters, some are designated by the word “bus” painted on the street, and further away from the center, they can be hard to identify. Some stops have displays showing the time until buses arrive. Many do not. The map apps helped a lot in these situations.

40. The Skopska app is the best way to use the bus. You can buy a single ticket or a weekly or monthly pass. We paid $29.00 each for our monthly passes.

41. Using the Skopska app on the bus can be tricky. Once you’ve pushed the button on the app to use your ticket, you will hear a soft noise. You need to hold your phone up to the validation box with the screen facing the box until you see eight little dots load on the box’s screen.

42. For our first several bus rides, we had no idea how to use the app. After we figured it out, we had no wifi for a few days. We hoped that if we were questioned, it would be enough if we showed we had purchased a monthly pass. We never saw any inspectors on the buses.

Validation screen and validation machine for Skopje buses
The screen on your app and the validation machine on the bus

43. Buses come in several shapes and colors. There are single and double-decker buses. They are usually red but may be other colors because they are covered with ads. Some of the buses are very old.

44. Some buses have the bus number in lights at the top and some have it on a piece of cardboard in the lower corner of the front passenger side window.

45. Watch your head on the upper level of the double-decker buses unless you’re a shorty like me. The ceiling is low.

46. We found the city to be very walkable, partly because of how close together the main attractions are and partly because the streets and sidewalks weren’t crowded.

47. Most streets have crosswalks painted on them. If there is no traffic light, all you have to do is step off the curb, and traffic should stop, even on busy streets with several lanes. Still, you should look both ways and use caution; bikes and scooters don’t always stop.

48. If there is a traffic light, obey the walk/don’t walk signs.

49. Bikes and scooters are popular, so it’s best to walk outside the bike lanes and cross bike lanes like you cross a street. Look both ways.

50. Look over your shoulder before moving left or right on the sidewalk (like you do when changing lanes while driving). Despite having designated bike lanes, bikes and scooters are often ridden on the sidewalk, and the riders seldom warn you when they want to pass. Motorcycles and cars occasionally drive on the sidewalks, too.

Food and Water

51. The tap water is safe to drink; however, it is very hard. We used a filtered pitcher to get clearer water.

52. We aren’t adventurous about trying different foods, but here is an article by Nomad Paradise about Macedonian food.

Restaurants

53. The restaurant prices were the lowest we’ve seen in quite a while. They are affordable enough that you can eat at places right in the city center and still get a great deal. The prices for drinks were similar to what we’ve seen in other Central and Eastern European cities.

54. There is a row of welcoming-looking restaurants along the river in the city center. We ate at three of them. All were reasonably priced, the service was excellent, and the food was pretty good.

55. Restaurant Dion  – We enjoyed the food here. We both had the chicken crown.

Chicken in curry sauce with potatoes and carrots
The Chicken Crown – chicken filled with mozzarella and prosciutto and covered in curry sauce

56. Buenos Dias – the helpings were huge, despite the photos showing smaller amounts. While the quality of the food was good, our dishes were a little bland.

57. Carpe Diem  – We had a light lunch here. Steve had pasta; I had a salad. Both were okay, but nothing special.

58. We also ate at Restaurant Pelister on Macedonia Square. We both had sausage stew, which was not bad.

Restaurant Pelister in Skopje
The terrace at Restaurant Pelister

59. The restaurant we loved was Amigos. It is just a short walk from Macedonia Square. We had the fajitas for two for $14.00. My classic margaritas were the best margaritas I’ve ever had.

60. For a tasty and inexpensive takeout, try Plaset (there are several around the city). We enjoyed the chicken durum, which comes with your choice of toppings and sauces. It comes in three sizes.

Shopping

61. We frequented two supermarkets, Ramstore and Vero. Both are large and have a wide variety of products. We started out at Ramstore in the Skopje City Mall but found that too many items weren’t priced, and the store wasn’t as clean as the Vero supermarket.

62. We preferred the Vero store at the corner of New Delhi Rd and Mitropolit Teodosij Gologanov.

63. If you’re close to the city center, check out the Vero store in Shopping Center Vero.

64. Bags are not provided at grocery stores. You can either buy them at the checkout counter or bring your own.

65. You have to bag your own groceries, and there isn’t a separate area to do this like we’ve seen in other cities. This can be challenging if you’re alone, and it always reminds me of this scene from I Love Lucy:

Hungry Cbs GIF by Paramount+ - Find & Share on GIPHY

66. Pharmacies are indicated by a green cross. In addition to prescription medicine, you can buy over-the-counter medication here, too.

67. DM is your best bet for toiletries, household cleaners, and personal care items.

68. If markets are more your style, check out Bit Pazar at the northern end of the Old Bazaar. The vendors here sell pretty much every cheap thing you can imagine. The largest fresh food market in Skopje is also located here.

69. You can find smaller fresh food markets throughout the city, like the one down the street from our apartment. It is in a seedy structure, but the produce is good, and the vendors are friendly. It is at Boulevard Partizanski Odredi 26.

Things to See and Do

The Old Bazaar

70. Skopje’s Old Bazaar is huge and has something for everyone. Steve and I spent some time wandering what we thought was the Old Bazaar, only to learn we were actually in the Bit Pazar. It turns out that the Old Bazaar is an area of many blocks lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants. Learn more about the oldest marketplace in the Balkans in this article by Wander-Lush.

Skopje Fortress

71. This fortress, also called the Kale Fortress, is worth a brief exploration. It is free to enter, and you can explore it on your own. There isn’t any written information at the fortress.

Skopje Fortress wall
You can walk the walls of the fortress and enjoy some city views

Mt. Vodno

72. You can recognize Mt. Vodno by the large cross on top of it. This is the Millennium Cross. It was erected in 2002 to commemorate 2,000 years of Christianity in Macedonia.

73. You can hike up Mt. Vodno or take the Millennium Cross Cable Car to the top.

Museums

74. The museums we visited had almost everything explained in English as well as Macedonian.

75. The Archaeological Museum of Macedonia – Even if you aren’t interested in archaeology, at less than $3.00 per person, it’s worth it to see the inside of the building with its grey and white marble staircase and the striking way the artifacts are displayed. That’s the Archaeological Museum in the featured photo.

Exhibition hall in the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia
One of the stylish exhibit halls in the Archaeology Museum of Macedonia

76. The Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia – This is another excellent museum. There is so much information that even after spending two hours there, we couldn’t take it all in. It cost us less than $2.00 per person to enter.

Large photo collage of Holocaust victims
The exhibit at the entrance of the museum

77. The Mother Teresa Memorial House – This small museum is free to enter. It showcases important moments and documents from Mother Teresa’s life. There is a small, pretty chapel on the second floor.

Statue of Mother Teresa
A statue of Mother Teresa watching over her museum

78. The Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Independence – This museum documents the struggle for independence from the late 19th through the mid-20th century. Huge paintings of historical events and nicely done wax figures are an impressive touch. The ticket price of around $5.00 includes a guide if you wish. Our guide did a great job, but we had some trouble understanding him because of his accent. The entrance is on the side of the building away from the river. Their website is only in Macedonian, and we could only take photos in the lobby.

79. For even more things to do in and near Skopje, see “21 Things to Do in Skopje, North Macedonia” by Wander-Lush.

In Summary

To see more of Skopje, check out our post “Skopje, North Macedonia Photo Gallery.”

Skopje has some flaws, but if you can look past them, you will be rewarded with some wonderful museums, beautiful buildings, magnificent monuments, and quirky statues. English is prevalent, which gives you a break from language stress, and your dollar goes far. Skopje is a winner.

Until Next Time

Do you live in Skopje, or have you visited it? If so, Steve and I would love to hear what you think about it and if I left anything out. Just drop a comment in the comment section below.

If you’re planning to visit Budapest, check out our post, “75 Things to Know When Visiting Budapest.”

Happy traveling,
Linda

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The Truth About Staying in Airbnbs

A sure sign of success is when your competitors gear their ads toward disparaging you. In the summer of 2022, the vacation rental company VRBO released a series of ads stressing that with VRBO, you and your family get the whole house to yourself. The campaign was called “Only Your People.” Here is one of the ads:

I find it odd that VRBO would spend money on this slam against Airbnb (although it is never mentioned by name). Anyone who has used Airbnb knows they offer many rentals where you get the whole place to yourself, and they offer top-end homes like the ones shown in the VRBO ads. You can also filter your search for self-check-in properties if you are strongly opposed to talking with someone who isn’t “your people.”

But hey, it’s their money.

Hilton Hotels also got a dig at Airbnb (again without naming names) with an ad showing a family arriving at a spooky house on the requisite dark and stormy night. As they approach the front door, the dad says, “Huh, it looked different online.” As they enter the house, they are met with a list of ridiculous rules. The family screams after a creepy doll says gesundheit when the daughter sneezes. But all ends well when they check into a Hilton hotel. You, the viewer, are then reminded that it matters where you stay. Check it out on CNN.

Airbnb has faced quite a bit of criticism lately, some of it deserved. They have been accused of driving up rents and forcing residents out of neighborhoods. People on Facebook threads are quick to mention high cleaning costs and hosts who impose too many rules.

Having stayed in over 40 Airbnbs during the past five years, Steve and I remain strong supporters of the company. As full-time travelers who keep a sharp eye on the budget, here is the truth about staying in Airbnbs as we see it.

All money is in USD

The Best Things About Airbnb

The Cost

Even if the other reasons in this list didn’t apply, we would still use Airbnb because hotels can’t come close to providing what an Airbnb rental does for the money.

With Airbnb, we can rent apartments with separate bedrooms, full kitchens, and clothes washers. Since we often stay in one place for four weeks, these things are important.

In the past year, we’ve had seven four-week-long stays with an average nightly cost of less than $60. These included stays in Greece, Morocco, Croatia, and Romania.

Comforts of Home

Even if you find a hotel with kitchen facilities, they will likely be limited. Our Airbnbs have a full kitchen with a full-size refrigerator, an oven, a microwave, and a stovetop. We often have a dishwasher.

While it is hit or miss when it comes to cooking supplies, most hosts do a good job of anticipating their guests’ needs. When we need a tool that isn’t available, we can find it inexpensively at a local store.

Our Airbnbs have entire living rooms, not just a few chairs set to the side, and separate bedrooms.

A modern living room and a view of a pool from above
Two of our best Airbnbs: Medellin, Colombia, and San Jose, Costa Rica

Great for Groups

Airbnb is especially great for groups since it is easier and cheaper to find a listing with several bedrooms than it is to find a large hotel suite. Even when Steve and I travel with our two daughters, we prefer it so they can each have a bedroom.

Good Quality Accommodations

Airbnb started as a place to get a room in someone’s home. The offerings have grown to include many elegant and modern listings. Even on a tight budget, the choices are pretty nice.

We have never had an uncomfortable bed, but we have had some less-than-comfortable sofas. Now we check the photos to ensure the sofa isn’t too simple; no futons or armless seats for us.

Helpful Hosts

Overall, our hosts have been superb. They have provided what they advertised and made themselves available to answer questions and address issues.

When we arrived in Pula, Croatia, for a 28-day stay, the host showed us around the apartment. I noticed there wasn’t a clothes washer, even though it was on the listing. I pointed this out, and the host asked if it was important to us. He said there was a laundromat around the corner. I told him that doesn’t work for us as we have very few clothes and do laundry often, and we don’t wish to spend time sitting in a laundromat. He understood, and the next day a washer was in place.

This turned out to be an honest mistake. The host had several listings and apparently copied the information from another listing.

We recently booked an apartment in Tirana, Albania. It didn’t have a microwave, so before we booked, we asked the host if he could provide one. He said yes.

We don’t bother our host for minor things like a dirty air conditioning filter or a hair-clogged drain, and we have had excellent responses when there has been a bigger problem.

Diverse Choices

Do you fancy a stay on a sailboat? Or perhaps a tree house is more your style. While hotel rooms may vary a little, there is only so much a hotel can do to make its offerings unique. Airbnb is full of variety.

Marina
The marina where we stayed on a sailboat for two weeks

Good Cancelation Policy

When we started using Airbnb in 2018, any stays of 28 days or more were non-cancelable. Since that is what we generally booked, we accepted this risk as part of traveling. The only time this was a problem was when Steve was laid up with a broken pelvis, and we couldn’t visit Kyiv. I let the host know, and he credited back part of our stay as he was able to rebook it.

Lately, we’ve noticed that most long-term stays allow cancelations, usually up to one month before the start of the reservation.

The Not-So-Great Things

Now that I’ve finished singing the praises of Airbnb, let’s talk about the not-so-great things.

Search Time

Steve and I spend hours researching every Airbnb we book. When we first started renting Airbnbs, we didn’t know what to look for, and we ended up in some less-than-ideal ones.  Over time, we have learned what to look for. And our methods keep evolving.

For example, when we booked a pleasant-looking apartment in a new building in Istanbul, we were pleased to find it was in a block of other new buildings. We were not so pleased that everything else, in every direction, was a slum. And this was after we had been traveling for more than four years. After that experience, we began using Google Maps street view to check out the neighborhood.

I would love to see Airbnb add a comparison feature to decrease guests’ search time.

Two views of Istanbul
Photo on left: our building next to the Cher Hotel; Photo on right: our view

Learn more about our rough start and how to find the best Airbnbs in “5 Tips for Finding the Best Airbnb Rentals.”

Disappointing Showers

If you can’t live without long, hot showers, Airbnbs may not be your best bet. We’ve found the shower quality to be lacking.

Our first Airbnb was in Barcelona. It had a small shower stall and, even worse, a small water heater. After a short while, the water would turn cold, and you had to turn it off and let the water reheat. This had to be done several times during one shower.

But the worst was when I slipped and hit the faucet after the water had reheated. I got a blast of scalding hot water, and because the stall was so small, I couldn’t step aside.

We’ve had a few Airbnbs with a limited amount of hot water and one in which the water never got more th